Do You Hear What I Hear
As early as the 17th century, humans have made attempts to enhance our hearing. So-called “primitive” devices like the ear trumpet and hearing horn are not drastically different from the hearing technology used today. Indeed, most sound-enhancing devices throughout history similarly emphasize both the portability of the device and the need for it in the current market.
Necessity bred invention, which has since moved far beyond into the realms of creative innovation. In addition, hearing devices used for surveillance fuel debate among privacy experts. Wearable hearing enhancement devices can be created out of necessity, in the pursuit of pleasure, or to advance the existing surveillance — the possibilities of each are worth examination.
Sound is an invaluable sense that has aided humankind in both survival and gratification. When that sense is deficient, technological advances step in to supplement. Even as early as 1588, philosopher Giovanni Battista Porta created a hearing aid based off of species’ whose hearing exceed human ability. Since then, hearing aids have become so accessible that they can be managed directly from an iPhone.
However, as with other wearable technologies, the community that spawned the hearing aid soon desired a device that would become an extension of the self unlike an aid that could be taken on and off.
The first cochlear implant was successfully implanted in 1957 and has since revolutionized the integration of deaf individuals into a predominantly hearing community. While hearing aids amplify sound, cochlear implants actually replace the non-functioning part of the inner ear. The science behind cochlear implants is impressive, but can be explained simply as a coding machine that converts outside sounds through the ear into an internal translation.
Current technology goes far beyond the straightforward motives of times past. The goal is not only to restore impaired hearing, but to make hearing as pristine as the bionic woman’s.
Doppler Labs created a wireless wearable called the Hear Earbuds, which will customize incoming sounds to the user’s liking. This product could create sound at a concert in which nosebleed seats produce the same experience as the sound booth itself. The earbuds also allow selected elements of the environment to be turned up, down, and eventually, muted entirely. Though the product is being marketed as a tool for aficionados of sound, the potential for this wearable goes far beyond music.
An area of particular concern for civil rights activists has been the potential for these technologies to be used for spying. Covert audio surveillance terms, or “bugs”, have been used in investigations since as early as the 1950’s to listen in on conversations remotely. The scope of covert listening has since widened. Indeed, even your mobile phone can be remotely accessible in order to listen to a live feed of the phone’s environment.
Recently, focus has revolved around the prevalence of the Stingray. These devices, used by numerous local and federal agencies, send out a powerful signal that is meant to mimic cellphone towers so that nearby mobile devices will send identifying information to the stingray. The legality of stingray usage is a hotly debated technology in a post-Snowden world. However, the capability of the device is unquestionable- from pinpointing a location down to the apartment number to blocking mobile use by individuals or groups. While the stingray is not currently sized for wearable use, it is worth contemplating that technology rarely becomes harder to carry or less convenient to use
The future of sound is as open-ended as the technology that advances it. Impeccable hearing is no longer a hypothetical, but a certainty that is dependent on the companies who create the product.