An earpiece that inflates like a tiny airbag inside human ears can create the perfect fit for any music-listening experience or hearing aid. The futuristic twist on earbuds could even arrive in Apple stores sometime in the near future.
The inflatable earpieces represent the newest invention of Stephen Ambrose, a pioneer in audio technology and founder of Asius Technologies. His technology aims to deliver better sound for consumer earbuds, hearing aids and the in-ear monitors used by performing artists, but without the collateral hearing damage caused by cranking up the volume to compensate for imperfect listening devices.
"We went to Apple, and they said we have the holy grail of in-ear devices and they just can't wait for us to be in their store," Ambrose said.
Asius earned early rave reviews from people with hearing loss during a study funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. Electronics industry representatives and journalists also had a chance to try out the earpieces during the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week.
How it works
The inflated earpieces create an oddly comfortable feeling inside the ear that resembles the slight change in air pressure when riding an elevator, according to one CES attendee. In a clever twist, the earpieces can harness the sound pressure from the headphone or hearing aid speakers to inflate themselves.
"You don't have to slide it into the ear because it actually crawls into the ear canal and unfurls," Ambrose told TechNewsDaily.
Such inflatable earpieces can create an "isolation" seal in the ear that blocks outside noise, but remain flexible enough to absorb some of the excess sound pressure pumped into the ear by headphone or hearing aid speakers. Excess sound pressure can "beat up" the eardrum and trigger an acoustic reflex that defensively dampens loud sounds — often leading headphone users to crank up the volume even more in a vicious cycle.
The Asius technology can also reduce the "occlusion effect" that creates the booming, resonant sound of having your ears plugged.
Finding the perfect fit
But the earpieces required flexible, yet strong, material that could withstand being inflated and deflated countless times. Asius looked around at several custom and commercial materials before settling upon medical-grade ePTFE material (Gore-Tex), said Samuel Gido, vice president for materials technology at Asius Technologies and a polymer engineer at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.
The Asius earpieces could eliminate the need for custom-fit earpieces used by professional hearing aids and expensive custom headphones, Gido said. Custom-fit molding currently relies upon an uncomfortable and imperfect "ear impression" process of pouring silicone "goop" into a person's ears to create a mold of their ear canals. [3D Ear Scanning Enables Custom-Fit Headphones]
Inflatable earpieces could also prove more flexible in adjusting to the changing shape of human ear canals as people yawn, chew and talk. Human ear canals even change their shape as people get older.
"This device gives you an excellent seal as good as a custom mold, but you don't need the custom molding," Gido explained.
Getting it right
Audio device manufacturers such as Apple, Sony and Sennheiser have already begun discussing how to use the Asius earpiece technology. Ambrose has even successfully retrofitted existing commercial earpieces, such as an $800 pair of in-ear headphones owned by his wife, Garnet Ambrose. (They originally didn't sound much better than a cheaper pair of headphones.)
Garnet Ambrose has spent hours peering into microscopes to work on the Asius earpiece prototypes and retrofits by hand. She recalled her earlier days working with musicians such as Nick Mason, the drummer of Pink Floyd, as she demonstrated the inflatable earpieces to CES attendees crowding around the booth.
"I wore this all day while I was cooking, cleaning, and doing all my normal things," Garnet Ambrose said. "The only thing I was disappointed in was that I ran out of music and had to download more."
The early prototype earpiece she held in her hands looked like two inflatable bags dangling from the ends of headphone cords — a cruder version of the final product consumers can expect. Yet the prototype had survived constant inflation and deflation during demonstrations over the past two years.
Maybe durability from a soft, flexible material should not come as a surprise. After all, Gore-Tex has become a material of choice for surgeons repairing hernias and heart defects. The stuff is made for heavy lifting, right?
"You got it," Garnet Ambrose said.
In the background, her husband echoed the same words in a completely different conversation.
"You got it!"