I’m finding that wearing hearing aids has had a very unexpected effect on how I experience the world.

When you just have ears, you don’t generally think about sound much. You either hear things or you don’t.

But when you’re wearing hearing aids, every sound is mediated for you by these devices — the world seems closer to you, because you can hear it better, but at the same time you’re experiencing everything at one remove: there’s an extra layer between you and reality that wasn’t there before. It can make life feel a little bit unreal.

The effect is even more pronounced with the new hearing aids and their array of controls and peripherals: the old ones you just put in your ear and that was it; the new ones have volume settings and up to four different audio programs and a bluetooth streamer you carry around that lets you plug the telephone or your television directly into your head so it sounds like people are talking directly into your brain. (And it’s made even more pronounced by the fact that the peripherals are often kind of flaky: the streamer has an unbelievably short transmission range, and sometimes it just ignores button presses, or only transmits to one ear at a time or switches to the wrong program. It’s one thing for your computer to sometimes randomly refuse to respond to a button press, but it’s another thing entirely when your ears do it.)

I’ve worn glasses my whole life, so this idea of strapping mediative devices onto my head every morning shouldn’t be so odd — I don’t know whether it’s just that these are new and therefore unfamiliar, or if it’s that I’ve now covered two out of five senses, or what. (And that’s it. I don’t care how awesome they make food taste, I’m not going to get the OdorAid noseplugs or the prosthetic tongue. Might be you could talk me into the full-body touch suit, though, once the prices come down.)

It’s a little bit gargoyle-like; I’m starting to see the appeal of wearable computing and augmented reality and all those other leftover buzzwords from the VR days. There really is something quite empowering about being able to adjust the volume of the world (or even about being able to turn them off when there’s nothing to listen to, and hearing all that background room noise fade away.)

And that’s part of the thing: with mediation comes the desire for control. Right now these are medical devices, which means the design priorities are all out of whack: they’re obsessed with making them small and unobtrusive, and limiting the number of buttons in an apparent attempt to keep it unintimidating (which means the user interface just fucking sucks. A single button changes the volume if you hold it down a certain amount of time, or changes the audio program if you hold it down a certain other amount of time, or turns the hearing aids off if you hold it down a certain other amount of time. Idiotic.) Most of the interesting settings are left in the hands of the doctor, you’re not allowed to tweak them yourself. (It’s just a windows program plus a couple of special cables that plug into the aids; gimme a copy I can run at home, is that so much to ask? For that matter, hello, they’re bluetooth enabled. Why do they need cables at all?) And the design goal is above all to make things sound more “normal”.

I don’t want things to sound more normal. I want them to sound better. Just off the top of my head:

  • Active noise cancellation. That’s a no-brainer. If that, or any of the other stuff I’m suggesting, would requires too much electronics to fit into the earpiece, put it in the streamer box I’m carrying around anyway instead.

  • Directional microphone. Ditto on the no-brainer; 99% of the time I want to hear what I’m looking at, not whatever’s behind me. But the microphones are in the behind-the-ear part of the aids, so if anything they end up amplifying whatever’s behind me more than whoever I’m talking to. I understand why they designed it this way, it’s to reduce feedback between the microphone and the speakers. (One interesting unintended feature is that by cupping my hands around my ears, I can play my head exactly like a theremin. Which is kind of awesome. Emily says it sounds like crickets.) But this is a good example of the design priorities being all screwed up: I’d much rather there was a visible directional mic extended a few inches forward on each cheek to get them out of feedback range — if you wanted to get really creative you could build them into my eyeglasses frames — than that they try to hide an omni mic behind my ear (where my hair scratches noisily against it every time my head moves, and I get feedback anyway if I turn the aids up too loud.)

  • On-the-fly audio settings. What these things really are, when you come down to it, are (incredibly expensive) EQ meters. Just like in your car radio, or your music software: the doctor drags around some sliders that represent different pitches, the software tells the hearing aids to amplify or dampen those pitches, and that’s that. So if I’m talking to someone who has a low-pitched voice who I can’t hear, because the person behind me with the high-pitched voice is really loud, I ought to be able to, well, adjust my EQ just like I do with the car radio.

  • Personal soundtrack. This technically is possible right now; the streamer has an audio jack that I can cable to my iPod and send music into the earphones… but it’s klunky as hell, because the range of the streamer is pathetic; a pocket is too far away, it has to be clipped to my shirt collar or worn on a lanyard (nota bene: nothing on a lanyard is ever stylish). Which isn’t so convenient when you’ve got audio cables strung up to it. I’m toying with the idea of buying a bluetooth transmitter for the iPod, which should work, though my attempts at pairing with other devices have been really hit-or-miss so far.

And that’s not even getting into the silly or futuristic stuff, the time-and-temperature announcements, or the alarm clock reminders, or the spoken GPS directions, or the subliminal mantras that could play in the background, or the ambient sound effects you could add to your environment, or the party mode that runs everything through an audio flanger or that adds a laugh-track or round of applause every time you finish speaking. Realtime language translation would be cool, too, as long as I’m dreaming.

Basically I look forward to what will happen when the nerd generation begins wearing these en masse, when the arduino-coding Maker crowd starts hacking on them. Better yet, I want to see what will happen when somebody starts selling them as consumer electronics, like fancy feature-rich headsets that also happen to be able to correct your hearing, instead of as Corrective Medical Devices that happen to have a couple of bells and whistles thrown in. (But not actually bells or whistles, unless you count the beeps that tell you when your batteries are about to run out.)