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20Q: Auracast is Here - What You Need to Know

20Q: Auracast is Here - What You Need to Know
Andrew (Andy) Bellavia
July 8, 2024

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From the Desk of Gus Mueller

Gus-mueller-contributing-editor

Ever happen to you? You’re out at a party or a social event mingling, meet someone for the first time, and once they find out that you’re an audiologist, you get the question . . . “So, what’s the next big thing with hearing aids?” Twenty years ago, automatic-adaptive directional processing got people’s attention. Automatic signal detection worked for a while. Rechargeable—maybe a little. Telephone call streaming has been a good story in recent years, but that’s now getting to be old news. What do you say today? One answer that has to be at or near the top is Auracast broadcast audio.

During the fitting process, it’s tempting to assume that when a patient is fitted with advanced features, and the hearing aids are programmed correctly, good benefit and satisfaction in the real world will result. For many patients, however, additional assistive technology is needed. For decades, we’ve had audiologists like Juliëtte Sterkens reminding us of the importance of T-coils and hearing loops, and their many applications in venues where hearing aids alone simply don’t work very well—but the fact is, the majority of patients are not fitted with hearing aids with T-coils. Auracast offers another solution, and that’s this month’s 20Q topic.

Our guest author is Andrew Bellavia, founder of AuraFuturity, a consultancy in the hearing, hearables, and broader communications spaces. You probably know him from his many presentations and publications, and his role as a co-host of the “This Week in Hearing” podcast at Hearing Health & Technology Matters. He is also on the advisory board of Tuned, a resource for delivering holistic hearing care. For several years, Andy was at Knowles in the Hearing Health Tech division, and was involved in the creation of many innovative hearable devices.

When I first started planning an Auracast 20Q, I contacted Dave Kemp. After all, if someone has a popular blog called “FuturEar.co,” and a podcast called “Future Ear Radio,” he probably knows something about “the next big thing!” Moreover, Dave wrote a 20Q for us a couple years back on the future of hearing technology. After trading a few emails, Dave suggested we get Andy involved, and what you see here is the result. While not an “official” author, I suspect that Dave had some input to Andy’s very informative 20Q you’re about to read.

 

Gus Mueller, PhD
Contributing Editor

Browse the complete collection of 20Q with Gus Mueller CEU articles at www.audiologyonline.com/20Q

20Q: Auracast is Here - What You Need to Know

Learning Outcomes 

After reading this article, professionals will be able to:

  • Discuss how Bluetooth LE Audio and Auracast will positively impact their lives.
  • Describe how these updates will alleviate some of the technical burdens that legacy Bluetooth protocols have fostered.
  • Describe the types of new hearing aid functions and use cases that Auracast will present, and the expected timeline of the deployment of said functions.
author
Andrew (Andy) Bellavia

 1. I have to admit I know very little about Auracast. I don’t even know where to start asking questions.

Before we get into Auracast specifically, I think a quick review of Bluetooth would be helpful. We’ll move on from there.

 2. That sounds good to me! Bluetooth has been around for many years, and modern consumer devices work exceptionally well. Why aren’t hearing aids the same?

The kind of Bluetooth we are all familiar with, Bluetooth Classic, has two issues that make using it with hearing aids impractical: Power consumption and latency or delay. One company, Sonova, was actually able to drive the power consumption low enough to be usable in a rechargeable hearing aid that lasts all day. But the latency cannot be overcome. For example, if I connect my hearing aids to my TV using Bluetooth Classic, the streamed audio will be too far behind both the visual cues and the sound coming from the speakers. Even for a normal hearing person, the length of delay can be disconcerting.

The same is true of remote microphones. The latency has to be low, or the audio picked up and transmitted by the remote mic will be too out of sync with the same audio picked up directly by the hearing aid microphones. For this reason, all the hearing aid companies, including Sonova, developed their own proprietary variants with usably low latency and lower power consumption, too. I can listen to a podcast connected with Bluetooth Classic because the delay doesn’t matter. But the Phonak TV streamer and Roger mic, along with all the others until now, required their proprietary system to be functional.

3. From your viewpoint, why has Bluetooth connectivity been such a challenge for hearing aids?

First, I have to clarify something. None of the proprietary systems are actually “Bluetooth.” To use that name, which none of the hearing aid companies do in connection with those systems, the device must meet the Bluetooth specification and undergo a rigorous qualification process. Bluetooth standards are created by the Bluetooth Special Interest Group, or SIG, an organization with a membership comprised of thousands of companies. They also qualify products to the standard and license the Bluetooth trademark.

This is exactly the point. All the hearing aid companies created proprietary devices that don’t play well with each other. It means a hearing care professional who prescribes multiple brands of hearing aids must also carry multiple brands of TV streamers and remote mics. One remote mic may get consistently better reviews from patients, but it cannot be recommended to people wearing other brands.

It’s worth mentioning that the hearing aid manufacturers didn’t necessarily want to be in the communications protocol game. It was they who first approached the Bluetooth SIG asking that a new standard meeting the needs of hearing devices be created, about 10 years ago.

4. What about mobile phone connectivity? Aren’t there two standards for use?

While both Apple and Google / Android created systems for communicating with hearing aids, MFi, and ASHA, respectively, these aren’t actually standards enforced by an outside body. It is up to the phone manufacturers themselves to ensure consistency.

Both companies deserve kudos for their creation, but implementation long-term has not been flawless. This is why there has been, from time to time a phone operating system change and, due to inadequate verification, hearing aids suddenly refused to connect. I had one hearing aid company executive tell me it has been a source of frustration that they have to figure out what the phone manufacturer changed so they could update their hearing devices to match.

It’s perhaps even worse for hearing care providers who have to know how to connect to various phones, and who get the first call when hearing aids disconnect.

5. How do we alleviate some of the burden that professionals face with troubleshooting Bluetooth?

Moving toward a universal standard with Bluetooth LE Audio will be helpful. One can confidently buy a wireless headphone or Bluetooth speaker and know it will work with their mobile phone. Most people can connect them without assistance. This is because both devices have been qualified to the same standard. If Bluetooth Classic had lower power consumption and latency, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. But it didn’t, and therefore the patchwork of proprietary hearing device systems became necessary. Going forward, connecting to hearing devices will be as easy as connecting to consumer earbuds. The pain that hearing care professionals experience today will largely be a thing of the past, thanks to LE Audio.

While a bug in phone connectivity to hearing aids would only affect a small segment of the phone’s user base, it would be a huge problem if all Bluetooth ear-worn devices and speakers suddenly refused to connect. Plus, the Bluetooth SIG would not approve the phone with faulty Bluetooth in place. By having a universal standard enforced by the Bluetooth SIG, consistency and performance will be much better.

6. That makes sense. What is Auracast, and where does it fit?

LE Audio is the latest version of Bluetooth for general use, such as calls and streaming. Auracast is a new broadcast version of LE Audio. Instead of pairing one listening device to one source, it is more like a radio transmission. Unlimited numbers of people can tune in to an Auracast transmission. It opens up a world of possibilities for shared audio.

7. I’m ready to hear all about it, but first, I’ve been hearing about Bluetooth LE Audio and Auracast for years. What took so long?

It can take a long time to create a universal standard, especially when there are so many stakeholders with varying needs. For example, the hearing aid industry wanted low latency, but the consumer earbud brands wanted better music quality. Both had to be accommodated in the different modes created in the standard. There is also much that is new, including sending audio down the low energy channel (hence the name LE Audio) previously used only for data, to save power. The system also had to be reconfigured to improve performance with true wireless earphones and hearing aids, something the older versions of Bluetooth were not designed for.

Auracast was completely new. Bluetooth Classic was designed from the ground up as a one-to-one connection. To create a broadcast mode that many people could connect to at once was a radical departure. All of this took time to get right, creating a standard robust enough to ensure 100% compatibility amongst devices. And don’t forget there was a pandemic just as the standard was being finalized.

8. It’s exciting to hear that it’s right around the corner. Why now?

Although companies could do preparatory work beforehand, the starting gun really went off in 2022 with the release of the standard. Since then, key companies that many may not have heard of, but which underpin the development of Bluetooth devices, have announced support for LE Audio and Auracast. For example (just to name a few) there is Packetcraft, which develops embedded software to run on Bluetooth chips, makers of chip building blocks like the company CEVA, and Bluetooth chip makers like Nordic Semi, Qualcomm, Airoha, Realtek, and Intel (with software support from Microsoft). Everything is in place for brands to create LE Audio and Auracast compatible products, and several already have.

9. What products are available today?

Things are moving fast, and more are coming. A few good examples supporting both LE Audio and Auracast today include GN Nexia and Jabra Enhance Pro 20 hearing aids, Samsung Galaxy Buds2 Pro, and Sennheiser Momentum TWS4 earphones. Others have announced compatibility and will add LE Audio and Auracast by software update later, including for the Signia IX, Oticon Intent, and the Cochlear Nucleus 8 sound processor.

Note that LE Audio and Auracast are two related but different things. LE Audio is required for Auracast but not the other way around. There can be an earbud supporting LE Audio but not Auracast.

10. What does the LE Audio and Auracast rollout mean to audiologists?

Over time, the proprietary hearing aid connection schemes will be phased out. The method of connecting a hearing aid to a phone will be basically the same regardless of the devices, and the reliability will be more robust. Hearing care professionals will have a much easier time supporting their patients.

Equally important is that Auracast accessories will be universal. An Auracast-based TV streamer or remote microphone will work with any Auracast compatible hearing aid. This opens up the innovation pipeline since any third party can create a better microphone, and any hearing aid would connect to it.

11. And what does it mean to the typical consumer?

LE Audio and Auracast will roll out with different trajectories. LE Audio is the new standard for the kind of Bluetooth connections we all think about – one-to-one connections for phone calls, meetings, and music streaming. As the new standard, it is already being incorporated into new source devices as they are released, for example, Samsung mobile phones, Intel PCs with Windows 11, and so on, even if they continue to support Bluetooth Classic at the same time. This will also be true of earbuds since the major chip makers are supporting it.

Auracast will follow a different path because it depends on devices and especially venues choosing to offer it. Auracast will roll out as sufficient numbers of consumer and hearing devices exist to make it worth the effort. One can think of three different scenarios – Personal & small group, silent TVs, and live venues. The pace of implementation will be different for each.

12. You alluded to personal use by mentioning TV streamers and remote microphones. Is this how consumers and hearing aid users will first experience Auracast?

Almost certainly, and not just with hearing aids. In the consumer space, the latest models of Android phones can transmit Auracast so that several people can listen to the same music or watch a movie together through their earbuds and headphones. There are also Bluetooth speakers that receive Auracast. Since multiple devices can receive an Auracast transmission, it is possible to scatter several speakers around the home and stream the same music from your phone to all of them.

Wearers of Auracast-capable hearing aids may not even realize they are using it at first. For example, a person might connect a TV streamer without realizing that Auracast is the transmission mode. The interesting part is that in such a home, a friend could tap in with a different hearing aid brand or even a set of earbuds.

In the end, TV streamers will become less necessary as TVs add Auracast directly. Already certain Samsung TVs support it. People can connect their compatible hearing aids or earbuds directly to their TV without needing an accessory.

13. Right, there’s no need for any “middle-man” technology. It’s interesting to think about the way this will be deployed in people’s personal environments, but what does the public venue roll-out look like?

Let’s take multi-screen venues first, because I think that could be the next way people truly experience the value of Auracast. By multi-screen, I’m referring to facilities such as sports bars and health clubs with a bank of TVs on the wall. It is sometimes said that designing for accessibility is designing for all. For example, in how curb ramps serve many situations beyond wheelchair users. In this case, it’s the opposite.

I believe multi-screen venues will drive the adoption of Auracast faster because the general public will want it. In the end there will be many more Auracast installations than would ever happen with hearing loops, and that will benefit hearing impaired people too. In fact, hearing loops cannot even serve in multi-screen environments. But Auracast can, and it will become a competitive advantage in places like health clubs where people can listen to the audio from any one of the bank of TVs.

14. Do you see Auracast outright replacing traditional Loop or FM Systems?

In the distant future, probably. But there will be a long transition period since it will take years before the base of hearing aids in use are Auracast compatible. Also, single channel venues like a live theater are already well served with hearing loops. Thus, there is less incentive to adopt Auracast.

Having said that, it is easy for those venues to add an Auracast transmitter in addition to their existing system. It is also a great option when an aging FM system is slated for replacement. Ampetronic and Listen Tech combined to produce an Auracast system including receivers that operate just like an FM system. People with Auracast capable hearing devices or earbuds can tune in directly. Those without can use the small receiver.

I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend adding a loop in a venue, considering hearing accessibility options today. The transition to Auracast will be long, so the loop will serve hard-of-hearing people for years to come. The new GN and Signia hearing aids, and perhaps others, will have T-coils as well as Auracast. They will be highly adaptable to whatever system is in place.

15. What other use cases and encounters might my patients have with Auracast?

Aside from the three I mentioned, another intriguing set of use cases is in the work environment. In group meetings, especially when it’s a hybrid of in-person and remote, the audio quality in the meeting room can be lacking. A small embedded Auracast transmitter within the conference call system could enable everyone to listen and hear well with the device of their choice. Hearing well means greater understanding and engagement, keys to maximizing productivity.

Conferences and seminars are another interesting application, especially in hotel ballrooms and the like, where a portable sound system is brought in for presentations. Often, the sound quality varies due to room reverberations and speaker placement relative to the whole of the audience. All it takes to add Auracast in this setting is a transmitter on a tripod connected to an output of the portable mixing board. Receivers like those offered by Listen Tech could be included for those without Auracast capable devices.

16. Your earlier point about standardization has me thinking…do you think we’ll see Auracast become a native feature on the two big mobile operating systems?

Android is already there, at least on Samsung phones. It is native on the Galaxy S24 going forward and my S23 just received the capability by software update. Now I can tune into Auracast transmissions using Galaxy Buds. Nexia or any other compatible earphone, and I can transmit Auracast for audio sharing. It is only a matter of time for other Android phones.

17. What about Apple and iOS?

Apple has not said anything yet, but it is hard to see why they would resist. Adopting LE Audio would in time relieve them of the burden of supporting the non-standard MFi hearing aids protocol, and they likely won’t want to see AirPods falling behind as other audio brands roll out LE Audio and especially Auracast.

Public venues like sports bars will need to see enough compatible earbuds out there to make the installation expense worth it. If Apple adopts Auracast, I believe we will see the installation rate accelerate due to the high sales volume of AirPods.

18. How do you envision people controlling their Auracast environments?

The most popular will be a phone app called an Auracast Assistant. Using an assistant is much like finding a WiFi hotspot. One opens it, gets a list of nearby broadcasts, and makes a selection. This is still in its infancy, though; the Samsung assistant in the Galaxy phones is not for the tech neophyte. I expect that more user-friendly apps will come in time.

An assistant app could also work together with QR codes. For example, in a stadium there will be multiple transmitters scattered throughout the seating area. At the entrance to each could be a QR code which, when captured, would directly tune to the correct one.

There is also the possibility of building the channel tuning into other devices, such as smartwatches or smart earbud cases with screens and touchpads like those already being sold by JBL today.

19. In a recent interview, I recall someone describing Bluetooth Auracast as “accessibility for large groups of people”…can you touch on what that means?

You might be thinking of Chuck Sabin, Senior Director of the Bluetooth SIG. At EUHA last year, he described that some venues are planning to support other forms of accessibility, like having a second channel broadcast descriptive audio for blind and low-vision people and perhaps a third with dialog-enhanced audio. Already, the movie theater in my small, rural town offers both assisted listening and descriptive audio through an FM system. In the future, this could easily be Auracast. So even if the overall rollout of Auracast in places like theaters is slower, we could start seeing the first installations offering multiple channels relatively soon since loops are confined to a single channel.

20. Last question. You told me that you wear hearing aids. What’s an Auracast use case that you’re personally excited about?

I am absolutely waiting for the first time I can listen to the audio on any screen in a sports bar. Right behind that is an application I haven’t mentioned yet so far – listening to the radio or TV broadcast of a sporting event I am attending in-person.

There are almost certainly additional use cases that I can’t even imagine today. It will be fun to see those deployed as facilities get creative with Auracast. I’m looking forward to experiencing all the ways Auracast will both improve audio accessibility and engage the general public.

I am also hopeful that since LE Audio and Auracast will be easier for hearing care professionals to support, more of them will be proactive in introducing their patients to the value of connectivity at home, in the office, and in public settings.

Citation 

Bellavia, A. (2024). 20Q: Auracast is here - what you need to know. AudiologyOnline, Article 28985. Available at www.audiologyonline.com

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andrew andy bellavia

Andrew (Andy) Bellavia

Andrew Bellavia is the founder of AuraFuturity, a go-to-market and branding consultancy in the hearing, hearables, and broader communications spaces. He is also on the advisory board of Tuned, a groundbreaking resource for delivering holistic hearing care. Previously at Knowles in the Hearing Health Tech division, Andrew was involved in the creation of many innovative hearable devices. He has been deeply embedded at the intersection of hearables and hearing health, frequently speaking and writing on developments in these markets. He has appeared in multiple publications and is a co-host of Hearing Health & Technology Matters' This Week in Hearing podcast.



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