Jonathan’s big smile and those of his happy parents are brought to you by the marvel of cochlear implants. That the above video is blowing up all over the tubes is a pretty good indicator that external, visible augmentation is moving steadily toward mainstream acceptance. Jonathan is joining the nearly 200,000 people world wide who’ve received a “bionic ear.” Buzzfeed has a bunch more videos of people hearing for the first time and I dare you to watch and not get a little weepy. At 8 months, the little guy should have no problem integrating into hearing society. Like anything that we aren’t born doing–be it walking, talking, or hearing with a bionic ear–we have to learn and practice. With cochlear implants, research confirms that the more time a child like Jonathan has to practice, the better he’ll be able to hear, understand, and speak.
The technology that lets Jonathan hear is the best we have right now, but a lot more options for the hearing-impaired are on the way. Amir Abolfathi, one of the minds behind Invisalign (the clear, plastic aligners that fix your teeth without obscuring your smile) has used his dental knowledge to create the SoundBite for single-side deafness. The Soundbite is a bone-conducting hearing aid that can be easily snapped onto or off of the molars on the same side as the deaf ear. It’s easier, cheaper, and safer than the current invasive technique.
Still, many in the deaf community would rather not undergo surgery or use other technologies to modify their bodies so that they can hear. For those with total deafness who don’t want to modify but are curious about the wonders of music, there’s a solution for that now too: the aptly (if not creatively) named Music for Deaf People. The device is a chic collar designed to rest on the shoulders and hug the neck. Fitted with a special electro-sensitive membrane, the collar converts audio signal (i.e. music, sound effects) into physical sensation. There are even different spots for treble and bass, like physical tweeters and woofers. Music for Deaf People still just a concept, but a rather smart one that doesn’t require deafness to enjoy. Can you imagine wearing one listening to, say, “We Will Rock You” or playing a first-person shooter? Sounds (feels?) like quite an experience.
Tech like cochlear implants is always a work in progress. Parts will get smaller, faster, cheaper, entirely new inventions will come along, and more profoundly deaf people will have the option to either permanently or temporarily modify their bodies to be able to hear. And that means more smiles like Jonathan’s are still to come.