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iOS Hearing Aids… or, How to Buy Superman’s Ears

I mentioned in passing in my report from CES that my hearing, to put it bluntly, is lousy (see “CES 2011: More Exhausting News from the Future,” 12 January 2011). Best as I can tell, I’m one of those genetic mutants who inherited my right ear from my father and my left from my mother, causing the anomaly that my right ear can temporarily go deaf thanks to paternal narrow ear canals. Usually this ranks up there as no more bothersome than the problem that bright light makes me sneeze.

Occasionally, though, my poor hearing can be a real issue, such as last year when I was dating a woman whose vocal frequencies were entirely in my “I can’t hear you” range. Or the other day, when I was having a conversation with a soft-spoken European and missed 80 percent of what he was saying.

I used to accuse the ex-girlfriend whom I referenced in my CES coverage of being half-bat, due to her ability to hear things I completely missed. But what it comes down to is this: I have no idea if my hearing is genuinely impaired, because I don’t know what normal people can hear. Sure, I unconsciously read lips, I prefer movies with closed captioning, and I often ask people to repeat themselves, but I don’t know if I have a real problem, or I’m just middle-aged.

I was contemplating all this while listening to a podcast on my noise-reduction headphones, and thinking that it would be easiest if I could just interact with the real world in the same way. Then it occurred to me: of course I can. All I needed was an iOS app that picks up microphone audio from my iPhone earphones and plays it through in real time.

Ten minutes later, I had downloaded Smudge Apps’ Megaphone from the App Store for $1.99. Megaphone is marketed to people who want to use their iOS devices as voice microphones while connected to an amplifier or radio output, but it works fine for relaying sound picked up by the iPhone’s earphone-based microphone to my weak ear as well. Their Megaphone Free does the same thing for free, as you might surmise, but at the “cost” of ads and nagware to upgrade.

I’ve had two results: one nearly amazing, and the other quite creepy. The amazing result: the setup works perfectly. I keep one earphone in my right ear and leave the left one dangling; this avoids the visual cue that I’m listening to something and don’t want to have a conversation. The microphone on the earphones picks up any speech that’s directed to me, and Megaphone amplifies it before it hits my right eardrum. I’ve had zero issues hearing people in conversation since I’ve tried this trick.

The only downside: Megaphone doesn’t use iOS 4 multitasking, so when I leave the app, my hearing aid disappears as well. (With Megaphone Free, accidentally tapping the huge Upgrade button switches to Safari, which also turns off the microphone.) The ideal alternative would be an app I could run in the background in conjunction with the iPod app, so I could listen to music as well as interact with the world around me. But it’s not particularly obtrusive to fire up Megaphone as an on-demand hearing aid for a given conversation. My next experiment will be to try out a Bluetooth headset, making me into one of those oh-so-stylish people who wears one all day. (But I expect that the main reason to stick with wired earphones is that I won’t have to deal with battery issues beyond the iPhone itself.)

Which brings me to the creepy issue. Use Megaphone with the normal iPhone earphones, and the mic pickup sits just below your chin; you’ll hear only sound that’s directed at you. But switch your iPhone earphones for the standard iPod earphones, which don’t have a mic, and now you’ll be using the rather sensitive omnidirectional microphone that’s built into the iPhone and fourth-generation iPod touch.

I tried this out for the first time while standing outside of a Starbucks, and suddenly I could hear the footsteps of anyone walking by. Snatches of a conversation at a 20-foot distance. I heard a siren, and then was shocked to see an ambulance pass by three blocks away. Traffic and ambient noise are also amplified, of course, but our brains have had a quarter-million years to learn how to separate out important sound frequencies, and that, plus my lip-reading abilities, turned me into a rather powerful eavesdropper. Walk into my Starbucks and observe me with my earphones in and my iPhone with the screen turned off, and you’ll probably assume I can’t hear a thing. But I can probably hear you place your order as well as the barista can.

No, I can’t listen in on your entire conversation from across the room, but I think I need to close that sentence with “just yet.” With some more experience in lip reading, I think I might be able to. More to the point, with a different app that lets me alter the sound waveform in real-time to focus on a particular voice, or with an unobtrusive directional mic (mounted on my glasses, perhaps?), this would be child’s play.

So this experiment leaves me with two thoughts: First, for two bucks I’ve just purchased a hearing aid which works damned well. Second, nearly everyone I encounter has an iPhone, iPod touch, Android gizmo, or similar device that can be used for this purpose; it might not be long before holding private conversations in public spaces might be a very bad idea. And it may have happened already.

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