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Unitron Hear Life - November 2023

Introducing Unitron Passport™ Premium Hearing Instruments

Bill Christman, MA, CCC-A

November 23, 2009
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Interview with Bill Christman, Unitron



Bill Christman

Carolyn SMAKA: Thanks for talking with me today, Bill. Please tell me, how long have you worked at Unitron (www.unitron.com) and what does your role as a product manager entail?

Bill CHRISTMAN: Pleasure to be here, Carolyn. I've been with Unitron for ten years now and my role is primarily overseeing the logistics of new product introductions to the U.S. market. This involves interacting with our corporate research and development personnel as well as the marketing folks, channeling the feedback that we hear from our customers about what they'd like to see for future product or software developments. I also coordinate some of the field trial activities that go on here in the U.S. during the development process and the initial training activities for our customers.



SMAKA: Very interesting! Let's get into Passport - it appears that the user has a lot of control over this system.


CHRISTMAN: Exactly - one of the things that we're most excited about with Passport is the level of user control that is possible. Some people may not realize this, but Unitron has stressed the importance of making control available to end users for years, dating back to when we first introduced the Unison 2 and Unison 4 products in 2002. These were some of the first digital hearing aids that included a manual volume control as a standard feature. Even then we recognized the importance for a user to have the option for control over volume in certain situations, as listening needs can change from day-to-day, and even minute-by-minute.

Our commitment to providing the convenience of user control has manifested in different ways with all of our products, including the onBoard™ control with the MoxiTM products released in 2007, as well as with the Smart Control remote and the Comfort-Clarity Balance feature. Passport continues in that tradition with the SmartFocusTM feature, and takes our philosophy of end user control to the next step.

Passport gives users an easy-to-use control that allows them to manipulate four different features of the hearing aid: microphone strategy, noise reduction, speech enhancement and overall gain. These four different properties can be controlled either with the remote or on the hearing aid itself.

SMAKA: How does the end user know when to make adjustments?

CHRISTMAN: When we think about the control, it's easy to get caught up in the technical descriptions of how the features work. With patients, however, it's simple to explain it in terms they understand so they can use it in their day-to-day lives and it can provide optimum benefit.

The Smart Control is the remote control. The SmartFocus feature is controlled by a small jog wheel - familiar to anyone who may have used or seen one on other devices such as Blackberries - on the side. When the wheel is rotated upward, it increases the clarity of the signal, and when the wheel is rotated downward, it increases listening comfort. It's that simple.

To achieve more clarity, the microphone response will move smoothly along a continuum from omni to fixed directional to partially adaptive directional to fully adaptive directional. The noise reduction and speech enhancement will adjust accordingly as well.

Greater listening comfort is achieved by moving toward an omni-directional microphone response so that the user is still are aware of what's going on in the environment, increasing the aggressiveness of the noise reduction, as well as reducing the overall gain of the instrument. All of these adjustments are simply made by scrolling the wheel downward.

The jog wheel has a very smooth continuum of adjustment of a total of 21 steps, ranging from the maximum comfort to the maximum clarity position. So there's quite a variety of settings available to users, allowing them to fine tune based on the situation that they're in, as well as their mood at that particular time.



Smart Control and the Passport product family

People's moods change from day-to-day. Their preferred listening settings on one day might be different the next day if they're tired, for example. This product is all about giving the customer complete control.

If the fitting professional so chooses, the volume control wheel or lever on the hearing instrument itself can operate as the SmartFocus control, instead of using the remote. This is great for people who want the benefits of the SmartFocus control, but may not want the remote accessory.

SMAKA: Is there research that shows increased control over the hearing instruments leads to increased satisfaction?

CHRISTMAN: What we saw in our field trial validation in Canada was very high levels of satisfaction with Passport. One of the findings that surprised us was that one-third of the subjects actually preferred to make adjustments using the remote control alone. This was a surprise since many professionals are not big fans of remote controls because historically remote controls were primarily program switches and volume controls - they did not provide any more functionality than did the controls on the hearing aid. But now using the Smart Control with SmartFocus, the user has a much greater impact on the performance of the instrument. People immediately hear the difference when they use the control, they understand that it is working for them, and they can appreciate its benefits.

I also think people's threshold for carrying these types of accessories has definitely changed in favor of remote technology. For example, we see people with Bluetooth® earpieces on walking through the mall or walking down the street talking on the phone all the time. Our frame of reference regarding gadgets and gizmos has changed in the last few years, becoming more receptive to the use of other accessories.

SMAKA: Can Passport learn the adjustments patients make over time?

CHRISTMAN: Yes. There are actually two levels of learning technology in Passport. The first is the self-learning feature in which the hearing instruments will automatically learn the adjustments that the end user makes to the device over time. Passport will learn not only adjustments to the volume control, but also adjustments to SmartFocus, so in theory, as they continue to wear the hearing instruments there should be fewer and fewer adjustments made as the hearing instruments learn what the preferred strategies are.

Unitron took self learning to the next step with the incorporation of the LearnNowTM feature, which is available when you use the Smart Control remote. Going back to the philosophy of providing the end user control, this is a check mark button on the remote that allows the user to teach the hearing aids right at that preferred moment. If they like their current settings or they've made adjustments in a particular context that they want to save, they can press this button and the hearing aids will learn that these are the preferred settings for that specific environment.

SMAKA: In terms of styles, what is available in the Passport line?

CHRISTMAN:
Coinciding with Passport's release, we've made updates to the custom product line, including a power option for the canal and half shell models. This was previously available on the CIC and full shell versions of the Yuu TM and Next TM products. Providing an output of 117 and a gain of 55 dB, the power option leaves little to be desired as far as gain is concerned. The option is very well received by our customers, as it provides extra flexibility by extending the fitting range, allowing the product to be fit for a broader number of patients.

IntelliVent technology was incorporated into our custom products. This process is used in manufacturing to optimize venting. By looking at the ear impression, the audiogram, and the shell style selected, we can determine an optimal vent size and thereby maximize natural sound quality without introducing feedback.

There are a couple of new form factors that we're introducing with Passport that we're pretty excited about: the Moda 13™ and Moxi 13™. We first introduced Moxi in 2007 and it has been a very successful external receiver device.

One of the things that made it very popular with professionals is the option to choose between a standard or power receiver. If you need a more powerful product you can simply change out to a stronger receiver in the office, making upgrades easier and more affordable for the customer. Additionally, Moxi has an onBoard control in the form of a push button incorporated into the battery door that can be used as either a program switch or a volume control. Moxi 13 is basically the same size as the original Moxi, only slightly wider to accommodate a size 13 battery. It also features wireless connectivity via the Unifi™ wireless system and a volume lever to compliment the push button control.

SMAKA: I had the opportunity to see Shift TM at AudiologyNOW. That's a great looking device.



Shift™

CHRISTMAN:
Yes, Shift is our new small 10A CRT, or canal receiver technology. The emphasis with Shift is on cosmetic appeal. As you know, the hearing aid market has seen a tremendous shift in product mix in the last few years, and in the last four years there has been a dramatic increase in the ultra small BTE category -BTEs that are using either a size 312 or 10A battery. Despite its size, it still has all the other features of Passport. Shift is equipped with the SmartFocus control and directional microphones, along with a push button, allowing for either program change or volume control on the device. Additionally, it comes in a broad palette of colors for different cosmetic preferences.

Shift is geared toward those that don't want anybody to know that they're wearing a hearing instrument, but yet they want something that looks cool. It sounds funny, but I think we all understand that demographic and have seen quite a few patients who fit into it!



Shift

SMAKA: Bill, let's discuss connectivity. Please tell me about Passport's connectivity abilities.

CHRISTMAN: In addition to the personal control that's available with Passport, one of the other exciting things about this technology is its ability to connect wirelessly to other devices. The wireless technology works on two different levels. First, there's wireless connectivity between the two hearing instruments. This is called the DuoLink feature, and allows synchronization between the two ears. So if the user makes a change to either the volume or program setting on one instrument, it can be synchronized with the other. They only have to make an adjustment on one side and both ears are changed, which is enormously convenient.

Passport also offers connectivity to other external devices with uDirect, an accessory that the user wears around the neck. The uDirect acts as a relay station between the hearing instruments and other devices, such as Bluetooth® enabled cell phones, iPods, MP3 players, FM systems and other devices of that nature.

In addition to the SmartFocus feature and the wireless connectivity, Passport also incorporates all of the other features you would expect in a premium hearing aid. A 20-channel system, multi-destination automatic program, feedback cancellation, speech enhancement, noise reduction, AntiShock - all of these things that are becoming standard in top tier technology.



uDirect

SMAKA: What have you heard from people wearing or fitting Passport?

CHRISTMAN: We've gotten very, very positive feedback so far.

For example, one of our field trial subjects runs the copy room for a large company - she is working in a high noise environment and was just absolutely thrilled with the performance of SmartFocus in her noisy workplace. Using the remote control, she could simply make adjustments on the fly and was able to effectively communicate, despite the clamor of the copy machines around her. Understandably, she struggled in that environment in the past, but the performance and ease of communication that the Passport provides really has improved her effectiveness on the job, and her overall quality of life.

We've also heard very positive things from people about the wireless connectivity to cell phones. One of the most often mentioned improvements reported by Passport users has been the ability to hear a phone conversation in both ears rather than struggling with trying to use the telecoil on one side as with other hearing aids. How often, when fitting hearing aids, would patients complain about difficulties using the phone?

SMAKA: MarketTrak has also shown that a lot of users are dissatisfied with their performance on the phone.

CHRISTMAN: Indeed. It was very interesting to us how many people made unsolicited comments about how much easier it was to carry on a conversation on the phone with Passport. They commented that it was much better to hear the phone in both ears hands-free rather than struggling to hold phone in place against the one ear as when using a telecoil on their old hearing aids. In fact, a couple of our respondents talked about how they had pretty much given up on using the phone, as they just found it too frustrating. But for the first time in years, they were able to hold a phone conversation using the uDirect. Today, when everyone is using a cell phone, it's more important than ever that people with hearing loss are able to communicate on the telephone, and it helps overcome a major barrier of hearing loss.

SMAKA: How do you recommend selecting the best Passport model for each patient?



Passport product family

CHRISTMAN: I'd recommend looking at the degree of hearing loss and determining what the patient is interested in from a cosmetic perspective. With all of the different form factors and power options there is a wide range of choices, so we're confident that there's truly a Passport solution for everybody.

SMAKA: Thanks so much for your time, Bill. I appreciate it.

CHRISTMAN: Nice talking with you today, Carolyn.

About Unitron

Unitron is a global innovator of technologically advanced hearing instruments. We care deeply about people with hearing loss and work closely with hearing healthcare professionals to make advanced, purpose-driven solutions available to everyone. Headquartered in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada, Unitron, a member of the Sonova Group, meets the needs of customers through 16 international offices and through distributors in a further 53 countries. More information about Unitron can be found at the Unitron Web Channel on AudiologyOnline, as well as by visiting www.unitron.com.

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bill christman

Bill Christman, MA, CCC-A

Audiology & Product Manager Unitron Hearing, US

Bill Christman, M.A., CCC-A has been with Unitron Hearing for 6 years. He returned to the US Headquarters in November 2003 after working as a member of the product definition and development team at the Unitron Hearing's headquarters in Kitchener, Ontario. During his two years in Kitchener, his primary responsibility was giving audiological input to the software development team. In addition, he provided product training and support for Unitron Hearing's North American and International group companies. In his current role as Audiology and Product Logistics Manager for Unitron Hearing, U.S., he continues to work closely with the product development team and oversees customer product training and education. Nothing to disclose



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