Apple is studying AirPods' potential as a health device
Apple Inc. is working on ways to make AirPods into health devices, including enhancing hearing, reading body temperature, and monitoring posture, according to documents reviewed by the Wall Street Journal and people familiar with the matter.
The plans are further evidence of Apple's ambition to add health and wellness features to devices beyond the Apple Watch, which currently hosts most of the company's health features. Apple is also working on technology aimed at using the iPhone to help diagnose depression and cognitive decline, the Wall Street Journal reported last month.
It's unclear whether Apple is developing new hearing aid features for the AirPods or wants to market the headphones' existing hearing aid features as hearing AIDS.Apple's high-end AirPods Pro headphones already offer features to improve hearing, including last week's "Conversation Boost," which increases the volume and clarity of the person in front of the wearer.
People familiar with the company's plans cautioned that the New AirPods features aren't expected to be introduced next year and may never be rolled out to consumers and that the timing could change. An Apple spokesman declined to comment. The Cochlear Center for Hearing and Public Health at Johns Hopkins estimates that about 28 million Americans have mild hearing loss, but only 5 percent use hearing AIDS. Another 12 million suffer moderate hearing loss, but only 37 percent of this group uses hearing AIDS.
The prospect of Apple offering AirPods as over-the-counter hearing AIDS in the future could be a game-changer, said Dr. Nicholas Reed, an audiologist at Johns Hopkins. He said Apple's ubiquitous earbuds could break the age-related ills of traditional hearing AIDS, which people often don't wear and cost far less.
AirPods may not be suitable for some hearing loss patients because their batteries don't last a full day. In addition, Apple has been beaten in the hearing aid market by consumer electronics rival Bose, which sells hearing AIDS approved by the FOOD and Drug Administration so consumers can customize them.
Research firm Strategy Analytics estimates that AirPods dominate the global market for Bluetooth headsets, with $12.8 billion in revenue in 2020, five times more than Bose in second place.
Experts say the array of sensors on the devices, including microphones, amplifiers, and sophisticated processors, means AirPods Pro already contains much of the technology needed to help people with mild or moderate hearing loss.
The market for hearing AIDS, which can cost thousands of dollars, is dominated by a handful of companies. There are cheaper "personal amplification products" available in stores, but their quality is inconsistent, experts say.
AirPods can't be sold as hearing AIDS right now because federal regulations date back decades when many hearing AIDS were unsafe or ineffective. The restrictions require the devices to be sold through licensed audiologists, who adjust the device for the wearer.
Under a 2017 law, the FDA is working to refine safety and efficacy rules for a new category of over-the-counter hearing AIDS that consumers can adjust. The rules are expected to allow companies like Apple, Bose, and Samsung to sell cheaper hearing AIDS.