With Kanso, the Future of Hearing Might Be in Connected Technology

Clearly, Apple now wants audio to be wireless. But, the future might hold technology that will make it so we don’t even have to use (and probably lose) their pricey AirPods to get wireless sound. Kanso, a new device from Cochlear Limited, is a medical device for the hearing impaired, but it’s got some interesting connected features that could have big implications for all of us — just, not for a while.

Let’s not get too far ahead yet — for now, Kanso is just for a subset of people with hearing impairment. It’s a sound processor in the form of a small patch that can be worn on the head, just above the ear, and it’s specifically for people who have gotten cochlear implants. Put roughly, a cochlear implant is an electrode surgically implanted into the head and attached to the cochlea in the inner ear. Instead of sound coming in through the ear, where it might have to pass through damaged parts of the ear that cause hearing loss, the electrode transmits sound directly to the inner ear when paired by a microphone worn externally. That external microphone is what Kanso is, but there’s a bit more to it.

Cochlear Limited is the only company making dual-mic sound processors for cochlear implants. They’ve had it in their Nucleus processors, which are worn behind the ear and are for less severe hearing loss. Kanso puts the same dual-mic configuration into a smaller, lighter package that can be worn on the head, which tends to be better for anyone who also needs to wear glasses. Having two mics — one near the front of the head, one near the rear — helps to establish directionality, so the person can better tell where individual sounds are coming from. It’s kind of like what you’d get from playing a game or watching a movie using headphones capable of virtual surround sound. It’s this sound processing that makes cochlear implants different from hearing aids, which more or less just amplify sounds.

But, what about those connected features? Well, Kanso has SmartSound iQ and True Wireless technology. The former can analyze sound and retune sound on the fly — it might put more emphasis on bass while if it detects a movie, or more emphasis on the mid-range if it detects a conversation. That ties into True Wireless, which lets Kanso work with other products to feed audio directly into Kanso. In a way, it’ll make Kanso work like headphones — audio will be transmitted from the source (be it a microphone worn by another person or a smartphone) directly into the ear, without ever necessarily being played out loud. But, unlike headphones, the actual sound waves will never hit your ear — sound will enter your brain directly as an electrical signal.

As of now, about 250,000 people around the world have gotten cochlear implants, but that number could grow faster as more insurance plans start to cover the procedure. That’s who will use Kanso and its technologies now, but Mike Leman, product manager at Cochlear Limited, sees more potential that could be realized in 10 or 20 years. In a Skype interview, we talked about how having a direct line for sound into the ear could help anyone better understand people talking around them, especially in noisy areas. Here’s the best example I can think of — imagine being in a bar and being able to hear your friends clearly, all by having everyone wear small, connected microphones. Don’t get too excited, because we’re a ways out from that, but it’s worth thinking about as we approach the point where surgeries stop being just restorative and start becoming augmentative.