With so much innovation happening today in the hearing aid and hearing technology world, I am reminded of one of the earliest innovations in modern hearing aid technology. In the mid-1980s, Bell Labs was working furiously on what would become the first commercially successful multichannel compressor hearing aid.
The inventor and project lead, the late Fred Waldhauer, got his inspiration for amplitude compression of audio as a solution when driving one night listening to the radio in his car. Noting the difficulty he had hearing the radio when the window was down, he started thinking about how to solve the audibility problem he was experiencing with the radio (mulitchannel compression). After talking to people like Jont Allen and Edgar Villchur and realizing that the radio audibility in noise problem was similar to audibility problems caused by hearing loss, Fred created a team at Bell Labs in 1984 and started designing a two-channel wide dynamic range compressor ASIC for hearing aids.
After several years of development, Bell Labs decided to shut down Fred’s project. Rodney Perkins, an otologist and medical device entrepreneur in Silicon Valley who at the time had a stealth startup called ReSound, heard about this and flew out to Bell Labs to negotiate the acquisition of the technology. Rodney not only ended up acquiring the technology in 1987, but importantly acquired the rights to offer jobs to some of the Bell Labs team to work at ReSound and also acquired the rights to use the Bell Labs name in marketing of the technology (think: Intel Inside). Rodney asked his friend Andy Grove, then CEO of Intel, what the best way was to convince Bell Labs employees to quit their job in New Jersey and move to California to join his ReSound startup. Andy’s advice: fly them to California in the middle of winter. Rodney successfully recruited four employees to move to Redwood City, California to continue development:Fred, Vincent Pluvinage, Carlos Baez and Margaret Farrell (who married Vincent after moving to California!).
Hearing aids in the 1980s were cheap transistor devices that provided linear amplification with peak-clipping. What made ReSound such a great example of innovation in action is that, at the time of their first product launch in 1990, very few people thought that multichannel compression was a good idea. There were many prominent papers published by respected hearing scientists showing that compression had no advantage over linear processing, and most of the thought leaders in the hearing aid and hearing loss field believed that compression was worse than linear processing for hearing loss compensation–it distorts the signal and reduces envelope cues, for god’s sake! I suspect that Jont Allen’s involvement in the development of the chip at Bell Labs and his understanding of cochlear mechanics had something to do with the team’s persistent belief that multichannel compression was going to produce a superior solution. As with any great invention, there was a litany of people telling ReSound that their idea was wrong and not going to work. Meanwhile, Jont enjoyed going to hearing aid conferences and generating interest in what was coming from ReSound by telling people that Bell Labs had spent more money on the design of the ReSound chip than the annual sales of all hearing aids in a year–warning that a juggernaut was coming.
When ReSound launched its first product, the company also challenged the status quo in its approach to the market. ReSound priced their product at least twice the price of the next most expensive hearing aid (every one saying: you can’t do that, you’ll fail), and required audiologists to purchase proprietary equipment needed to program the devices and become certified before they could receive ReSound hearing aids to fit (again being told: you can’t do that, you’ll fail). Rodney and team basically did everything that the industry at the time told them was the wrong thing to do. And, of course, every decent hearing aid in the world today now has multiband compression.
It is difficulty today to think that people at one time believed that linear peak-clipping hearing aids were a better solution for people with hearing loss than ones with multiband compression. Producing a solution that everyone thinks won’t work, ignoring common wisdom and meeting new unmet needs, transforming an industry, and eventually seeing your the solution become a commonplace and de facto standard: all characteristics of truly great innovators embodied by the original ReSound team.