One of Chicago's hottest designs is almost undetectable

Written By Sun-Times Wire Posted: 04/02/2014, 03:15pm

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Will Jenkins, of Buffalo Grove, and Libertyville audiologist Theresa Jagasia discuss the Beltone First made-for-iPhone hearing aid. | Brian O’Mahoney/For Sun-Times Media

In the future, people will communicate with their computer through earbuds.

Or at least that’s what the movie “Her” proposes. But for a local company known for its innovations in designing hearing aids, mini-wireless headphones are already a reality.

The Beltone First hearing aid can receive music, get turn-by-turn directions, talk to Siri, and listen to podcasts, playlists and other audio directly from iPhones, iPads and iPods.

Adding the free HearPlus app lets a wearer program the hearing aid to fit his or her lifestyle — much like a personal assistant and customizable radio rolled into one.


The Beltone First hearing aid.

The hearing aid’s latest kudo is winning a Red Dot Award, recognizing it as one of the best product designs in the world. The company will be recognized at a ceremony in Essen, Germany, in July.

The Beltone First costs about $3,000. A basic hearing aid costs an average $2,000, according to House Research Institute, a Los Angeles-based advocacy organization for advancing hearing science.

Beltone got its start as the first nationally branded retail hearing aid business. The 74-year-old Glenview company claims other firsts, including launching the all-in-one hearing aid in 1944 and creating ear molds for astronauts in 1969 to protect their hearing during liftoff and re-entry.

Beltone’s latest technology aims to enhance the user’s experience, much like any other smart device. Here’s how:

  • The app lets the wearer “tag” places and save preferences where he or she frequently visits or where he or she has been. When the person next goes to that site, the hearing aid can change to the wearer’s programmed settings.
  • If the wearer goes to a favorite restaurant in a noisy, bustling loft, the hearing aid self-adjusts to home in on speech — acting like a microphone trained on one speaker — and decreases background noise.
  • The app uses a bar-graph symbol to show how much battery power is left on the hearing aid and how close the wearer is to a lost hearing aid — the latter a thermometer version of “you’re getting warmer.”

Beltone’s next act may mimic Joaquin Phoenix’s character in “Her” even more closely.

The company will expand the app to work with Android and other smart devices that compete with Apple’s iOS, said Beltone President Todd Murray.

“The technology has changed so fast in the past 10 years,” he said. “In the 1990s, the big change was digital signal processing, and now, pretty much everything sold in the industry is a digital product.”