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How The Super Bowl 2016 Became A Platform For 'Hearables'

The day before the biggest event of the year, hundreds of people young and old gathered at a college campus on the outskirts of San Francisco’s celebratory bustle . There were no big signs, no music, and no paparazzi–just a platform stage, a few chairs and people anxiously awaiting their chance to sit in them.

Athletes like Carolina Panther’s wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. came together with celebrities and the hard of hearing for a nine-year tradition between The Starkey Hearing Foundation and the Super Bowl where nearly 150 people got to take home a piece of free wearable innovation—hearing aids.

Faces lit up and and tears came down as patients ages four to 84 received their custom-fit, teched-out hearing aids from stars including rapper 50 Cent, singer Jordin Sparks, and Academy Award-winning actress Marlee Matlin who performed sign language interpretation for Lady Gaga’s national anthem.

The modern molded technology has been around for a few years but the software is unique as Starkey Hearing Technologies is releasing a brand new, third update to its Halo hearing aid on March 1st. The high-tech hearing devices sync to a Starkey smartphone app called TruLink—including the Apple AAPL +0.22% Watch. “We have a lot of children with hearing loss and on the field with the coach, they are working hard to hear,” Seydel says. “It really makes a difference with the child but also with the parents. It effects self esteem.”

The TruLink app allows the patient to have direct iPhone to hearing aid adjustment if you wanted to change the sound, turn up the volume, and stream phone calls. Apple owns the patents on this low-battery antennae which helps with the batter-draining nature of bluetooth connectivity.

Starkey Technologies’ Halo 2 hearing aid and connecting Trulink iOS app

Because of the various environments users encounter on a daily basis, the TruLink app has up to 20 different environments, the hearing professional can make up to four of them and the patient can create 16. “Say you go to Dunkin’ Donuts, you can save the info that makes for the best hearing preferences and geotag them for the next time the user goes there,” Seydel says.

The Next Wave of Wearables: Hearables

Starkey’s innovation advisor Satjiv S. Chahil, who has done marketing work from some of Silicon Valley’s biggest names like Hewlett Packard, Apple and Beats By Dre, took a turn for Starkey when he witnessed an event like the one that happened on Saturday. To him, it’s a market ripe for innovation as well as de-stigmatization.

Chahil says Starkey’s plan is to reverse that misconception that hearing loss is just an 80-year old’s issues hinting at potential to work with companies like Dolby and Beats by Dre to create a hearing buffer. “One out of six millenials are destroying their ears,” Chahil says. “At that time [advising Beats by Dre] I didn’t understand the health ramifications of it [headphones]. There’s lots that can be done just to enhance everybody’s hearing and at the same time preserve their hearing.”

Starkey Hearing Foundation founder William F. Austin attends to patient Deborah after she received her hearing aid during the Starkey Hearing Foundation hearing mission during Super Bowl weekend 2016. (Photo by Phillip Faraone/Getty Images for Starkey Hearing Foundation)

Spearheading a partnership with Condé Nast, Chahil and Starkey are aiming to take its Halo and Trulink technology to a B2C market in order to detach the stigma of hearing aids and make them more of a fashionable accessory.

The brushed silver metal and black combination makes it look cool instead of something trying to hide, Chahil says. “If you can make such a huge headphone [Beats] stylish, you an make hearing aids more stylish and understood as a health attribute not a stigma because of the disability.”

Doppler Labs recently started shipping its noise-customization earplugs called Here which resonated so much with the millennial consumer base that uber-hip fest Coachella is including a pair with each ticket. But Starkey believes its technology made in its Berkley labs is the secret to cooking up a rich presence in Silicon Valley. “Now with wearables, everybody’s trying to put as much on the wrist as possible and yet many of these things are more accurately tracked from the ear. It helps because it has correlations to dementia to cardiac. Starkey Labs did a study that shows the correlation between motor skills and hearing. It’s a very interesting time in hearables.”

Starkey also has another big tool that can help its products resonate with consumers—great stories of people hearing for the first time which is what originally attracted an innovator of Chahil’s caliber. “They’re [Starkey] mission was about giving the gift hearing to people plain and simple,” Chahil says. “The mind set in Starkey is very Silicon Valley–they want to change the world and do it in an innovative manner so it hasn’t been hard for me to convince a Silicon Valley company to be part of this. It’s been very harmonious.”

Chahil says his father went silent for the last several years of his life which they found out later was because he couldn’t hear. “Most people just don’t know it exists or how common it is,” Chahil says. “I’ve been saying next year will be the year of the ear. So the realization all of the sudden comes and we want to make sure we have the technology and solutions to serve the need. With the super bowl, The whole attention is here and I’m hoping that it becomes a turning point for people realizing the importance of both preserving their hearing and correcting their hearing as soon as possible.”

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