Focus: Communications - Hearing aids as designer accessories

Prototype hearing aids by top designers are on show at the V&A.

The RNID has launched an exhibition it hopes will encourage consumer manufacturers to radically rethink the future of hearing aids.

HearWear, which opened at the V&A museum in London on Monday, features designs and prototypes by some of the UK's top designers. Companies such as Motorola, Apple and Sony were also invited to the opening.

Henrietta Thompson, deputy editor of design magazine Blueprint, which helped to organise the exhibition, is a hearing aid user herself. She confessed: "I have been hard of hearing all my life, but I wouldn't wear a hearing aid until I was 16 and realised that not wearing one was more socially damaging than wearing one. I was very affected by the stigma."

RNID research estimates that most hard of hearing people struggle for 10 years before they give in and get a hearing aid. Five million people in the UK could benefit from hearing aid technology, yet only 1.4 million actually do. Sales of hearing aids in Europe are worth £1.7m, but the market could be worth £5.7m.

"If you ask most people who use them, they would like their hearing aids to be invisible," said Thompson. "So they have been getting smaller, developing in the opposite direction to glasses, which have become such a fashion accessory that many people choose to wear them instead of lenses."

The models in the exhibition do not just examine how to improve the aesthetics of hearing aids, but also how they can be used to complement the latest technology.

RNID spokeswoman Clarinda Cuppage said: "People are quite happy to walk around with the latest Bluetooth devices and hands-free mobile phone attachments, but they don't want to wear a hearing aid."

The Decibel, designed by Priestman Goode, tones down the noise of a tube train so wearers can listen to music at less than potentially dangerous levels. It can also alert the wearer to incoming calls on their mobile.

IDEO, meanwhile, has devised Table Talk to help people hear conversations in noisy pubs. The table has a built-in microphone with a conductive strip running around the outside - the same technology that has been used in theatres for years. Hearing aid users simply switch their aids to the T-setting, and anyone else can tap into the loop using simple white 'earbuds' that can be bought in sealed blisterpacks from the bar.

Cuppage said: "We hope that, eventually, hearing aids will no longer be seen as just a piece of technology to correct a disability."

HearWear is on at the V&A until 5 March 2006.

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