Imagine that you go to the airport and in the waiting area there is a TV showing a news program, but the anchor’s speech is muted and dialogue can only be read by standing nearby to watch captions on the screen. Not very exciting. Then imagine that you pop in your hearing aids or earbuds that have the newest version of Bluetooth. You can now link to the real sound from the TV using Bluetooth Audio Sharing that is based on the new broadcasting feature of Bluetooth LE Audio. This Audio Sharing will work much in the same way as a FM radio but with a shorter range.
Does this sound like science fiction? Possibly, but it will become a reality in a few years when the Bluetooth LE Audio system finds its way into all sorts of products where transmission of sound signals is involved.
This very important new system has been developed in a tight co-operation between the hearing aid industry and the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (BT SIG). It will bring many improvements to users of hearing instruments and at the same time, enable anyone with a Bluetooth based headset or earbuds to listen in on public audio sources. The project started years ago when the European Hearing Instrument Manufacturers Association (EHIMA) reached out to Bluetooth SIG in 2013 with a wish for specific features that would allow hearing aids to employ Bluetooth® technology to expand connectivity in other devices.
The Bluetooth® Audio Sharing (broadcasting) feature opens amazing opportunities for streaming audio signals to large audiences. Traditionally, hearing aids had to be paired to the audio source by clicking a button on the hearing aids or opening your smartphone to connect the hearing aids to an audio source. Apart from listening in large area public venues, Bluetooth Audio Sharing holds the promise to satisfy many other use cases, such as 1:1 hearing assistance at service counters, translation services, and personal audio sharing (e.g., streaming music to multiple speakers or earbuds). The possibilities are far reaching.
Many people with hearing loss need access to assistive listening systems to be able to differentiate and focus on certain sounds at public venues where competing noise and reverberation (echo) pose serious challenges. When an affordable mainstream technology like Bluetooth can provide such services, we will see a proliferation of assistive listening systems to the benefit of hearing aid users across the world. At the same time, millions of users of headsets and earbuds will also benefit from these new opportunities.
The Bluetooth® Audio Sharing system will have many advantages over the telecoil/loop systems that are currently available in many public settings such as checkout counters, theaters, and on public transportation. Improved sound quality and no interference from other electronic devices are important benefits, and the ease of installation of a wireless system will help to make this technology popular.
Most of the modern hearing aids already use Bluetooth® LE technology for programming the devices to the specific needs of each user. When LE Audio is implemented in the coming generations of hearing aids, they will be able to benefit from Bluetooth Audio Sharing as well as connectivity to phones, TVs, and other devices. However, hearing aids are medical devices and thus subject to rather strict regulatory requirements, so it will therefore take some time to get products out, but all major hearing aid manufacturers are investigating the implementation of LE Audio for upcoming products.
The transmitters for assistive listening are provided by some specialized companies that also need to develop and market their products before it all comes together. Bluetooth LE Audio is becoming a normal feature on newer TV sets and there will likely be add-on devices that can be connected to older TV’s to act as Audio Sharing sources. Likewise, phones, tablets and computers will also be built with the new Bluetooth version, so any technology installed with Bluetooth will help to effortlessly connect the listener to their favorite devices for clearer conversations and audio experiences. We are at the beginning of a new era where public and private access to sound signals broadcasted by Bluetooth enabled devices will bring easy access to sound signals everywhere.