Researchers have developed a mobile app that turns an iPhone into a hearing aid.
Unlike standard hearing aids that simply amplify all sounds, the BioAid app is inspired by biological processes and replicates the complexities of the human ear.
The researchers say it puts the user in control and potentially holds the key to a future where tiny, phone-based hearing aids can be dispensed and adjusted remotely.
BioAid, which is available on iTunes was developed by Professor Ray Meddis of Essex’s Department of Psychology with Nick Clark, formerly a research officer in the department and Dr Wendy Lecluyse of University Campus Suffolk.
Unlike standard aids that have a single setting, BioAid has six fixed settings each of which has four fine-tuning settings allowing the user to find the perfect match for their impairment.
"We are very excited about the potential of BioAid which could genuinely change lives," Professor Meddis said.
"Even if they have a hearing aid, the technology is not sophisticated enough to offer a tailor-made solution to their impairment and in many cases people simply stop using them.
"Sounds are a complicated mixture of different frequencies and hearing loss is usually a loss of sensitivity to some but not all frequencies.
"Standard hearing aids amplify some frequencies more than others but BioAid is different because it also compresses the very loud sounds that can make social situations like going to the pub, cinema or a birthday party intolerable."
Clark added: "The mobile phone is a great platform for rapidly transferring hearing aid technology from the laboratory to the hands of the public.
"Standard hearing aids, which can cost thousands of pounds, are only dispensed by a professional after a hearing test.
"BioAid offers a simple alternative accessible to anyone with an iPhone or iPod.
"The hearing test is replaced by an exploratory process, allowing users to find which setting works best for them.
"In the short term, people unsure about visiting a hearing care professional might be swayed to do so by BioAid, which can only be a good thing.”
As phones get smaller and technology continues to advance, the researchers believe the BioAid project has the potential to radically change the future of hearing devices.
"It’s not inconceivable that we’ll wear phones on our wrist in the near future, or even as tiny devices behind the ear," Professor Meddis said.
"With the BioAid algorithm and wi-fi technology, we could see dispensers able to remotely adjust the settings on a phone-based aid and even monitor use to ensure the user is getting the most out of it."
Wendy Lecluyse added: "This new device opens up many intriguing research possibilities allowing scientists to explore new ideas in hearing aid design and how they work in everyday settings.
"At the moment, we are particularly interested to find out how the preferred setting of each user corresponds with their hearing problem."
The development of BioAid, which has been funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and Phonak, is part of a research project to influence the future of hearing aids.
Read more about the BioAid
Download the BioAid app on iTunes