By Caroline Copley
ZURICH (Reuters) - A wireless microphone in the shape of a pen, made by Switzerland's Sonova, can help people with hearing loss understand speech better than those with normal hearing at certain noise levels, a study has shown.
As the population ages, the hearing aid industry has become fiercely competitive as manufacturers rush to launch devices packed with newer technologies that will increase the appeal of wearing one.
Sonova is banking on new products to maintain its lead as the world's biggest hearing aid maker. Around 70 percent of its hearing aid revenue comes from products that have been on the market for less than two years.
The company's microphone, called "Roger" after the term used in radio communications to say a message has been received, wirelessly transmits a speaker's voice over a 2.4 gigahertz (GHz) frequency to a tiny receiver that clips onto the aid.
The pen - which can be placed flat on table, used like a microphone or hung around a speaker's neck - makes speech more intelligible over distance and when there is background noise, such as in a busy restaurant, in a meeting, or in the car.
"It's very beneficial if the speech target is a little bit further away not just sitting in arm's reach length, such as across a table or across a schoolroom," said Stefan Launer, head of science and technology at Sonova.
The World Health Organization estimates 5 percent of the world's population - 360 million people - has a disabling loss of hearing.
A study published in the American Journal of Audiology found people with moderate-to-severe hearing loss who used the Roger Pen could understand speech better than those with normal hearing at noise levels of 65 decibels (dB) and above.
Although Sonova does not give sales figures for its Roger Pen, its launch helped lift revenue in its wireless communication systems business almost 19 percent in the second half of the 2013/14 year.
The Swiss company has a market share of around 24 percent, followed by William Demant with 23 percent, Siemens with 17 percent and Denmark's GN Resound, the hearing aid unit of GN Store Nord, in fourth place with 16 percent.
While competitors offer wireless microphones, Kevin Taylor, head of technology at British charity Action on Hearing Loss, said Roger's discrete pen shape and its ability to switch between amplifying sounds from all directions or just one made it stand out from other devices.
Rivals also want to increase the appeal of hearing aids. GN Resound has launched the LiNX hearing aid that lets users listen to calls and music from their iPhones, which it hopes will banish the stigma of wearing a device by linking hearing aids to a fashionable brand.
But despite offering "super normal hearing", Sonova's Launer acknowledged technology may have its limits.
"The auditory system has millions of years of evolution and it has features that are very, very difficult to copy," he said. "Given all the computational power the brain has, it’s just something very hard to beat in a technical device."
(Additional reporting by Oliver Hirt in Zurich and Stine Jacobsen in Copenhagen, editing by Louise Heavens)