Lantos Technologies, a Cambridge, Massachusetts startup company working with patented technology developed at MIT, is on a quest for the perfect ear mold fitting.
With $1.6 million in venture capital funding, the company is developing a unique scanner that will create an exact digital image of the inner ear, enabling ear mold manufacturers to produce hearing-aid shells, earphones, and other in-ear devices that provide a perfect custom fit for the wearer.
If Lantos is successful, its product could be a game-changer not only for the hearing-aid industry, but also for makers of a broad array of high-end audio electronics and hearing protection equipment. Perfect-fitting earmolds enabled by the Lantos scanner could pave the way for entirely new consumer products that are currently impractical to bring to bring to market, because the cost of ensuring an accurate fit for every user would be prohibitive.
Audiologists and hearing-aid customers put up with the necessary evil of taking ear mold impressions for hearing aids and other select products only when they must, because there is currently no alternative. Getting a good ear mold is a messy process that involves injecting soft silicone putty into your ear down to within millimeters of your ear drum, leaving it there for several minutes until it starts to dry and harden, and then pulling it out and sending it to an ear mold manufacturer. All the while you keep your fingers crossed, hoping the impression doesn’t have so many flaws that you have to perform the procedure all over again.
The Lantos scanner, on the other hand, inserts a thin, balloon-like membrane into the ear canal, which inflates to the exact shape of the canal. A tiny fiber optic camera inside the balloon takes a digital image of the walls of the ear canal and transmits it into a database, where it can be used by a 3D manufacturing system to create an earmold replicating the exact physical contours of the patient’s ear. The result leaves little to no room for the kind of error that comes with the manual earmold fitting, it is far less invasive and uncomfortable, and the entire scan takes only a minute or two.
Ear molds are necessary for many types of hearing loss requiring more than minimal amplification, because hearing aids require a tight seal to put enough distance between the microphone and speaker to prevent feedback—the annoying whistling that can render a hearing aid inoperable. Good earmold impressions are also necessary for the popular new “invisible hearing aids” that must sit deep enough within the ear canal to be virtually invisible to eliminate the stigma many people still feel is associated with wearing hearing aids.
Because everyone’s ears are different—Lantos CEO Shahid Azim notes that your ear canals are as unique to you as your fingerprints—each earpiece must be custom crafted to the individual. Taking a good physical impression of the ear canal, however, is often a hit-or-miss proposition. In addition to the time required to get a good impression and the discomfort of the procedure, the earpieces based on the molds often come back flawed. Sometimes they don’t extend deep enough into the ear canal, and sometimes they don’t fit at all because the original molds were either distorted when removed from the patient’s ear or did not completely fill the ear or accurately conform to the ear canal when originally taken. In addition to feedback, a bad earmold impression can result in an earpiece that is uncomfortable or which causes irritation, swelling, and even infection.
Why is the Lantos Technologies scanner a potential game changer not only for the hearing aid industry, but for other markets?
- Hearing Aids: For several years, use of hearing-aid earmolds seemed to be on the decline, as improved feedback cancellation lessened the need for a perfect seal and as the new tiny, near-invisible open-fit behind-the-ear hearing aids that don’t require an earmold at all gained market share. But the new “invisible” hearing aids that sit deep within the canal are expected to gain market share and increase the demand for custom earmolds. A perfect fit achieved in a fraction of the time will make these new form factors even more comfortable and popular, encouraging hearing aid developers to integrate more features and functionality into invisible earpieces hidden in the ear canal.
- High-End Audio: Personal in-ear headphones are increasingly are being used by audiophiles for high-fidelity sound, including sophisticated noise-cancelling applications that previously required over-the-ear headphones. However, their market growth has been hindered by the difficulty achieving a perfect in-ear fit, and by the drawbacks of “one-size-fits-all” earpieces that simply don’t fit many users’ ears. An easy-to-administer digital scan that could be transmitted directly to the manufacturer, who could immediately produce a custom earpiece on demand for customers purchasing its high-end in-ear headphones would revolutionize this market segment. If it doesn’t sound like much at first, think of the iconic Apple iPod graphic ads with the wires dangling from the users’ ears. Custom earpieces integrating better sound are the logical next step in this huge market.
- Hearing Protection: Think of the bulky headphones you see on airport runway personnel or workers in other noisy environments. Then think about all the situations where people should be protecting their hearing, but aren’t. Think especially of the soldiers in combat zones, where hearing loss has become the number one disability. The reason more people don’t use hearing protection is that most earplugs and over-the-ear headsets actually prevent you from hearing anything at all—which can be just as dangerous in many work environments. Another reason people don’t use hearing protection is that standard earplugs are often uncomfortable or they simply don’t fit. Custom earpieces can integrate electronics that filter out dangerously loud noise while letting speech and other important audio information through. They are comfortable and actually improve job performance, and safety, rather than hindering it. Every soldier ought to have a digital ear scan done when he or she enlists and be issued a set of custom in-ear hearing protection devices. And, as more wireless communication is integrated into in-ear earpieces, the market demand for and acceptance of hearing protection devices requiring accurate earmold impressions will accelerate.
- Hearing Health: Have you ever suffered from swimmers’ ear, or come home from the beach annoyed for days by water in your ear that won’t drain? Have you ever told yourself you really ought to get a set of ear plugs? Why don’t you? Because they are uncomfortable. If you had an easy way to get a set of custom earplugs, you would probably have a set. Think especially of all the parents out there sending their kids to swimming lessons at the local pool: how many would feel negligent about not protecting their childrens’ ears if they knew that custom swimmers’ earplugs were as easy as getting a quick scan and having perfect-fitting earplugs delivered through the mail?
- Bluetooth Phones: Are you one of the many people who would like to have their mobile phone calls transmitted directly into your ears, but who think that today’s bulky and obtrusive Bluetooth earpieces look dorky or idiotic? What if you could have a tiny invisible earpiece that was so comfortable you could keep it in all day, that transmitted your phone calls into your ear with high-fidelity sound, and which also passed through everyday environmental sound transparently so you could hear normally? An accurate scan and perfect-fitting earpiece would make Bluetooth products with that kind of performance, functionality and ease of use possible.
Those are only a few of the obvious applications that aren’t practical today, but which would be enabled by the perfect earmold fittings Lantos Technologies is seeking with its scanner. Lantos has licensed technology developed by a research team led by Douglas Hart, MIT Professor of Mechanical Engineering, that enables quick and extremely accurate scans of small, complex surfaces. Prof. Hart has a proven track record, having developed earlier scanning technology for dental impressions that was subsequently acquired by 3M for $95 million, and is a founder and member of the board of directors of Lantos.
The Lantos scanner is still under development, and there are few details available yet about what it will look like, how it will be sold, and how the digital scans will be archived and managed. It’s a good bet, though, that audiologists and hearing aid companies will line up for it as soon as it’s available. Lantos CEO Azim says the company hopes to be able to demonstrate a prototype of the the product to potential customers sometime this year.