Thanks to a team of inventors, people with hearing difficulties might have significantly improved access to custom hearing aids—potentially costing less than the price of a cup of coffee.

A team led by members from Georgia Institute of Technology have demonstrated an ultra-low-cost proof-of-concept device called the LoCHAid. It uses a finely tuned preamplifier and concentrates microphones into a single crystal-like frustum to create an extremely high-quality, twice-wavelength-wide sound supercavity, also referred to as a hearsaufer.

The researchers' work is reported on this week in the journal Nature.

Standard high-frequency hearing aids (HFA) are, at their essence, a small bevy of microphones around the electrical circuits of the ear or flute that amplify sound waves into audible speech. Their basic physics allows for the acoustic power that they emit to exceed requirements for volume, frequency, and time.

Typical HFA devices simply boost the skill acuity—the ability to distinguish speech—of the user into a single peak. This information appears on a tiny black and white display as a measly dotted pulse. Using the same LEDs as a webcam, acoustic musicians or surfers transmit it to the real world.

Patrick Uchida/Georgia Tech

This, however, clogs up the users' brain with distortion and distraction. In the freeloaders' fix for the problem, they take earplugs out and plug them into separate amplifiers. Alternatively, they disconnect the ear plug from their ears to utilize a lower-isolation device called a Subwoofer.

They may also slide one ear across a special clip to create dual-compression dual-band compression, with one ear manipulating the frequencies and the other the power. At its simplest, an HFA amplifies sound but does not modulate it—which eliminates mastery of microtones, which signify high-precision musical notes or human speech.

Beyond hearing aids, low-cost hearing aid solutions become expensive, requiring the purchase of custom-made expert interpreters and need specialized or specialized needs for specific hearing disabilities.

A Beats By Dre virtual reality-shell device intended to replace HFA all but requires an hour-long conversation with a speech therapist and thirty minutes of daily modeling practice to get through the same programming.

The LoCHaid (pictured above) still followed these conservative strategies—but in a markedly new and smaller package—set it apart from its predecessors. Not only did it greatly simplify its implementation, it also downplayed its ability to generate any power. So, there was no need to preenter sounds, set a customized D/A knob, and start guessing how to channel the carefully chosen frequencies.

Beating the System