Soundspace | Designing hearing aids into the high street


How design can help to enhance the lives of those with hearing impairments ?

In 2003, The Royal National Institute for the Deaf, in partnership with Blueprint magazine launched a competition to the UK design community.

Alloy designers examined the issues and found some startling statistics that drove the creation of Soundspace. In the UK, there are roughly 9 million people with some form of impairment. Of those, roughly 1.5 million have been fitted with a hearing aid, and of those roughly 40% stop using the devices after a short time.

The startling drop off of fitting and use highlighted real issues that the intelligent application of design could solve. Those with hearing impairments were often prompted by their partners / families who grew frustrated with shouting or just not communicating. Such prompting often occurs after years of hearing loss. The delay meant that users had become used to the ‘silence’ – no ticking clocks, no sound of chewing, and so on. Once fitted with a hearing aid, the users became increasingly distracted and annoyed by the small sounds they had become used to not hearing, leading to “Soundshock” – too much noise, stopped by the removal the hearing aid.

To confound this was the purchasing process – where a user underwent a medical process of measurement, fitting and delivery. The end result was often a flesh like piece of plastic that was universally seen as ugly. Almost every element of this process was less enjoyable than it could have been, and Alloy designers used the analogy of eyewear as the benchmark goal. – How had opticians & eyewear manufacturers shifted perceptions of glasses from a stigma to a desirable fashion accessory, and could the same process be used with hearing aids ?

The solution created was SoundSpace - a range of desirable, fashionable designs that appeal to consumers well beyond those with hearing impairment. Indeed, it was ironic that at the time the emergence of Bluetooth headsets and the white headphones and wires of the new iPod were seen as ‘cool’. Using such perceptions, Alloy designers sought to blur the lines between assistive hearing technologies, and advanced communication technologies.

Users are able to create personal SoundSpaces using simple controllers to manage inputs from mobile phones, music players and other audio sources.

At the core of the SoundSpace concept is the Ear Anchor (patent pending).  It utilises the natural undercuts of the ear, enabling a secure and unobtrusive fit for any device.  The concept removes the need for a custom made ear mould by utilising a flexible silicon based smart seal within the ear canal.  Without the need for a custom ear mould, SoundSpace takes hearing aids out of the hospital and into the high street.  By providing ‘glasses for your ears’ SoundSpace could be distributed through established networks such as opticians.

Alloy developed the Soundspace proposition into a concise range of conceptual devices. The most simple offer is ‘Minimal’ – an elegant jewellery like earpiece that provides simple pre-set hearing amplification, that is both unobtrusive and distinctive.

We extended the functionality of the Minimal device to include an ability to control a range of external devices.  These are presented in two different styles – Statement (fashion orientated) & Pro-Sport (active orientated). Both were designed to be controlled without looking.

The Soundspace project was conceptual, intended to inspire the industry to explore ways in which they could improve the lives of those with hearing impairment. The products created were displayed in the V&A Museum in London as part of a 12 month temporary exhibition.

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