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Unitron Hear Life - November 2023

Interview with Brian Kinnerk, President of Unitron US

Brian Kinnerk

February 4, 2008
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Topic: The new Yuu - An Interactive Automatic Solution
Paul Dybala: Hello everyone, this is Dr. Paul Dybala with Audiology Online, and I want to welcome you to another one of our interviews where we talk with different professionals in the industry. Today I have Brian Kinnerk, who is the President of Unitron U.S., and we'll be talking about some new and exciting products and features coming into the Unitron hearing aid family. Welcome, Brian.

Brian Kinnerk: Thanks for having me, Paul. Always enjoyable to sit down and talk with you.

Dybala: Thanks! We are going to talk about this new premium product that Unitron Hearing has just recently released. But before I start off, Brian, I know that you are the President of Unitron U.S. Could you give us just a little bit of your background?

Kinnerk: Sure, I would be happy to.

This is my 17th year in the industry, beginning my career with Phonak US in sales and sales management. I served as President of Phonak Canada for three years from 1999 to 2002. Then with the merger of Unitron Hearing and Phonak, I was given the opportunity to run Unitron Hearing here in the United States from 2002 to the present.

Dybala: Thanks for that. Recently, Unitron Hearing released the Yuu. Brian, I will have to ask you a little about where that comes from, because I am always keen to know if there is an interesting story behind the name of the hearing aid.

As a side question, do you guys get into any issues at Unitron when you say "Hey, I need to talk to you about Yuu," and they think you are talking about the hearing aid versus the person?

Kinnerk: [laughing]

Dybala: Is there any confusion on that?

Kinnerk: Yeah. This is the product that will create some confusion; but we have a lot of fun with it, I think.

Dybala: [laughing]

Kinnerk: To your earlier request, Yuu, is actually a Japanese phrase, that loosely interpreted means "superior" or "extraordinary." At least that's what they told me. I can't really validate that, because I do not speak Japanese.

It works out pretty nicely, though, because we can have some interesting plays on words. Also, it reinforces this idea of the product being very interactive and very personable.

Dybala: Could you give us an overview of what you wanted to accomplish with Yuu, as well as the great legacy products that you currently have at Unitron?

Kinnerk: Certainly. When you talk about successfully launching a product in the premium category, I think the market expects that you either introduce a unique feature or innovation with real-world benefit, or one that improves significantly on existing technology, perhaps to become a gold standard in the industry. With Yuu, Unitron Hearing was able to successfully satisfy both of those criteria.

In general terms, Yuu is the first interactive, automatic hearing solution that allows patients to adapt the features and teach the hearing aid to make these adjustments automatically. This is the philosophy behind it. With this in mind, we had to introduce the features and the appropriate technology to reinforce the philosophy.

Dybala: Great. There are two things that I wanted to talk about here, in terms of new technology. One of them has to do with Yuu's Comfort-Clarity Balance control. The other one is a new feature that uses LearnNow technology, which allows some smart controls that the patient can have over the hearing aid.

Let's start off with the Comfort-Clarity Balance. Give us a little background on that.

Kinnerk: Comfort-Clarity Balance is an industry first. It is one of the innovations that we are introducing with the Yuu. This technology allows us to enhance some of the other value-added features that you have come to expect, such as data logging and self learning.

Comfort-Clarity Balance is a manual control that gives patients control over adaptive features beyond traditional program changing or volume control adjustments. It allows the patients to adjust the agressiveness of the speech enhancement and/or the noise reduction algorithms to emphasize clarity or comfort, based on the patient's individual environments.

They can adjust the noise reduction and speech enhancement algorithms via a control on the hearing aid or with the Smart Control. The Smart Control is the optional new remote control being introduced with Yuu. The Smart Control has a very clever scroll wheel on the side so that if they scroll the wheel up, they are optimizing speech enhancement and noise reduction to emphasize clarity. If they scroll it down, they are emphasizing more comfort with noise reduction.

Dybala: There has been a growing trend for hearing aids to be able to determine the type of environment you are in and then automatically enable switching for that environment, whether it be a directional microphone mode or whether certain algorithms kick on or kick off.

I have seen numbers anywhere from 80 or 90 percent in terms of the accuracy of the hearing aid to determine the environment. It is not 100 percent accurate, but pretty good overall, I will say that. However, there will still be situations where even if the algorithm says, "This is a very noisy situation - I want to go into comfort mode," that patient might say, "No, I am a unique individual, so I want to make an adjustment, and I don't want to go into noise reduction. I want to maximize speech enhancement because that is what I prefer." So, it is really taking the best parts of what the hearing aid technology can do and intuitively adding on to that the response from the user, correct?

Kinnerk: Absolutely. I think a large proportion of people with hearing loss are willing to pay a premium for automation. I think the smarter and more sophisticated hearing aids get, the better they are at switching appropriately to respond to the environment. Yet we know from sources such as MarkeTrak that there are a good number of folks who still would like some control in terms of optimizing their listening experience. With some of these more sophisticated systems, wearers don't necessarily always have access to adjust for personal preferences - maybe they have a volume control, maybe they don't. With Yuu, the Comfort-Clarity Balance provides more than a simple gain adjustment across the entire frequency response. This hearing aid allows you to make more precise adjustments in terms of clarity or comfort by manipulating the adaptive algorithms.

Dybala: And just for comparison, I can see someone reading this interview and thinking, "How is this different from before when you could switch between program one and program two?" How is this different from selecting various programs already set in the hearing aid?

Kinnerk: The key point is that with the Comfort-Clarity Balance, we are allowing adjustments within the automatic program. This means the wearer still has the hands-free convenience they were seeking in an automatic hearing aid because the classification system is very good at recognizing the environment and making changes accordingly. The Comfort-Clarity Balance takes this a step further and allows the wearer to personalize their listening experience to exactly how they would like to hear when they are in those situations. And when we consider that the hearing instruments can learn to make these adjustments automatically as part of the system's self learning, I think this becomes a very powerful tool to allow the wearers to take ownership in creating a truly customized listening experience, while still being automatic.

Dybala: Great. Let me go back to something we mentioned before. We have seen a big trend on making hearing aids more and more automatic. There is something about allowing people to "set it and forget it" that is appealing. So how have patients been responding to this new feature? Is it easy for them to understand? I remember teaching a patient just how to turn the hearing aid up and down, let alone changing programs. What is the reaction of people you have been fitting this on?

Kinnerk: Definitely! Technology that is too difficult to manage will just go by the wayside. We always have to keep in mind who our target audience is. So it was very important for us to design something that was easy to understand and comprehend and also to manipulate. We knew that in the field trials this was certainly something that we wanted to evaluate.

We know that the functionality of Comfort-Clarity is easiest to use with the Smart Control remote as it has a nice tactile feel to it. We tried to make it easy for the patient to understand the concept of scrolling the wheel up if you are interested in emphasizing speech and to scroll it down if you are more concerned about comfort in noisy situations. To help support the process of teaching wearers how to use the Comfort-Clarity Balance, we created a desktop counseling tool as well as a simple reminder instruction sheet the wearer can take home with them. The content of these tools was developed based on feedback from fitters during the field trials in order to make the counseling process as straightforward for the wearers as possible.

I think it's also worth mentioning, we know that not everybody is a big fan of remotes. For this reason, the Comfort-Clarity Balance can also be accessed by a control on the hearing aid itself if the remote control is not of interest.

I think the "set it and forget it" type of approach is still applicable, because as I mentioned earlier, the self learning feature in Yuu will allow the instruments to learn the adjustments the wearer makes to the Comfort-Clarity Balance as well as the volume control. This should allow the wearer to go truly 'hands-free' with settings that they have helped to define themselves.

Dybala: Sure. And on the remote, as far as in a binaural fitting, if they are hitting that control in the remote, it actually adjusts both hearing aids, correct?

Kinnerk: That is correct.

Dybala: That's a nice feature. I think this Smart Control is a pretty cool tool and expands on the user interaction. You also have a LearnNow technology that is an expansion on what other companies have attempted by "teaching" the hearing aid, or by the hearing aid "learning."

Kinnerk: The LearnNow feature allows the patient to teach their hearing instruments their preferred volume control and Comfort-Clarity Balance settings in any environment. Yuu has the self-learning that will allow the instruments to gradually learn the wearers personal preferences for comfort, clarity or loudness. The LearnNow feature allows the wearer to accelerate the self learning process.

The way they do this is by using a little green button on the Smart Control. When the wearer goes into a particular environment, they might adjust the volume and/or Comfort-Clarity Balance settings. When they have achieved a sound quality they like, the patient would push this green LearnNow button on the remote control and the hearing instruments would store those settings for use in the future. Then the next time they walk into that type of environment again, those saved setting become the new default. So, LearnNow is part of the overall self-learning process that the hearing aid incorporates, but it basically accelerates that process by recording those personal preferences within these different listening environments.

Dybala: Maybe I was misunderstanding. It is not applying settings, but rather recording them? Am I getting mixed up?

Kinnerk: Not at all. Let's say you walk into your dining room or dining hall and it's noisy, and you are optimizing your hearing aid, adjusting the volume control and adjusting for your optimal Comfort-Clarity Balance. Say you get to a setting you like and you want the hearing aid to remember it. You hit the green LearnNow button, and ideally once you walk back into that dining room the following day the hearing aid remembers those settings and will default to those settings, which is triggered by the environment. So, basically we are eliminating that step where you are having to go back to your hearing healthcare professional and have them program those refinements.

Dybala: Right. I think that's a huge benefit, because the data we see suggests that the more complex the hearing aids, the more return visits you have because you're adjusting all those features.

And so this is nice, I think, both for the professional and for the patient as far as being able to find a happy medium for those things. I mean obviously, if the patient needs larger adjustments they can come back in the office. But this makes sense because the patient is right there and they're making final decisions as to whether or not those adjustments are appropriate.

The other part of this, too, as you know, is that there are many manufacturers who provide room simulations in their software when fitting a patient. These are very, very helpful in getting a first approximation as to what the person is experiencing in their own environment. I think this kind of protocol would still be recommended, but I think it's an even more powerful feature to have the patient go out into their own specific environments and be able to manipulate the aids on the spot, kind of like their own programming in a way.

What's been the response from any of your patients that have been fit with this feature?

Kinnerk: I think the field trials told us that the hearing healthcare professionals have to counsel what those buttons do and what the expectations are. But once patients understand the general concept of what the technology is doing, then they are very receptive of the remote control and the concept of Comfort-Clarity Balance and LearnNow. Even professionals who admitted they were not fans of remote controls indicated they were rethinking their opinions because of their patients' reactions to the Smart Control.

Dybala: Well, it makes sense because even if you put the same two people in one given situation they might have different preferences on how they want the hearing aids to be set. We've seen that even with people who share the same hearing losses, you know? These sound like some great tools to really help us fine tune the instruments for these patients.

Kinnerk: I should also mention that the feedback manager feature has been greatly enhanced in the Yuu. I think that we can confidently say that this will be the new gold standard in feedback management to allow for greater headroom, stable gain, and aggressive venting.

Dybala: Oh really? What kinds of numbers or benchmarks have you done for that?

Kinnerk: Well, we know how important effective feedback management is and some other companies have made some considerable headway in this area. We felt it was necessary to make sure our new feedback management system provided feedback control that was second to none within the industry. As part of the development, the engineers measured the maximum stable gain that could be provided with the feedback manager enabled. These measurements showed that the feedback manager in Yuu provided maximum stable gain levels that were comparable to or better than any other feedback management system available today - in some cases as much as 8 to 10 dB more gain at critical frequencies.

Dybala: Wow!

Kinnerk: It was pretty significant. So this additional headroom can be used in several different ways. It can be used to expand the fitting range of a particular shell style, because a greater amount of gain can be applied before reaching the feedback threshold. This also holds true for open fittings; being able to the benefits of an open fitting for more wearers. It can also be used to provide larger venting to provide a more natural sound quality. In some cases we're able to provide as large as a 5mm vent! This obviously requires a pretty large ear canal, but with the improved feedback management, it's possible to achieve this without feedback.

Dybala: That's incredible. You mentioned the instrument is available now, and if people are interested can they contact Unitron? Are you guys fully stocked and ready to go?

Kinnerk: Yes, we're hitting the ground running. We're fully stocked. Product rollout began late October/early November, with widespread launch on November 21st. We're excited about the fact that again, there are some very unique features to this product. It does require a little bit of instruction, so our outside and inside sales teams, our audiology/technical support and marketing support teams, are ready to tell our story and explain the great value and benefit of these unique features in use.

Dybala: Well, great!

As always, if anyone wants additional information on Unitron or on the Yuu, you can give Unitron a call at (800) 888-8882, or the visit their Web site at www.unitronhearing.us. You can also head over to the Audiology Online Web Channel for Unitron Hearing at www.audiologyonline.com where you can find e-learning courses specifically for you Yuu, as well as other news and information about Unitron.

So with that, I think we'll tie up the interview. Again, Brian, thanks for your time and thanks for talking with us about Yuu.

Kinnerk: It's my pleasure. It's good to talk to you again.

About Unitron Hearing

For 40 years, Unitron Hearing has been committed to bettering the lives of people with hearing loss by developing and manufacturing high-quality hearing instruments. This means a commitment to develop innovative hearing solutions to your everyday problems and concerns you have with hearing loss.

Unitron Hearing U.S. is an ISO registered, custom manufacturing facility. Our team pays close attention to each individual order from the shell lab through assembly to final computerized quality testing. Unitron Hearing U.S. supports hearing healthcare professionals throughout the United States with a dedicated organization of manufacturing, sales, marketing, service and technical experts. Unitron Hearing Worldwide employs 550 people and serves customers in more than 70 countries.
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Brian Kinnerk

President of Unitron US



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