Since Apple announced the original AirPods in 2016, the Cupertino-based company has been deliberate in emphasizing the popular earbuds are meant to be listening devices. Computers for your ears, essentially. As new software features such as Live Listen and Conversation Boost have appeared over time, Apple has been even more deliberate in sending the message that AirPods of any surname are not designed to replace a medical-grade hearing aid. There are plenty of Made for iPhone hearing aids that integrate tightly with iOS for people who need better hearing; AirPods are not designed to radically improve one’s aural abilities.
In all my briefings with Apple on AirPods over the years, one of the first things they stress plainly is AirPods are for casual listening to music and podcasts. Again, they’re not to be viewed as a hearing aid replacement—they’re fancy earbuds.
“[We’ve] been very vocal about changing the conversation around hearing loss—that it shouldn’t be stigmatized,” said Orka co-founder and chief executive Ben Sun in an interview with me last month over videoconference. ”When we first started out with this new venture, she [co-founder Xinke Lu] pushed very hard for us to think about what the product [hearing aids] should be: [it can] be not just something that helps people hear better, but also something that could be a lot more user-friendly and more user-centric. This is definitely part of our DNA.”
The initial spark for Orka came during Christmastime in 2017 when Sun was back in China visiting relatives for the holidays. He noticed his grandmother was having issues with her hearing and decided to get her a pair of hearing aids. The pricey hearing aids cost Sun over $1000, and his grandmother stopped using them after a month. At the time, Sun was working at Apple, helping build products such as the keyboards and trackpads on MacBooks as well as the Apple TV’s Siri Remote. He envisioned hearing aids that loosely resemble AirPods and that had the top-shelf user experience to match. One of the comments from his grandmother was, despite using the hearing aids, she still had trouble following along with people when conversing in noisy environments. That was concerning to Sun to learn.
The Orka One was recognized at CES 2021 as an Innovation Award nominee in the Health & Wellness category. The device was lauded in part as “the world’s first hearing aid powered by proprietary [patent-pending] AI DeNoise technology that runs a server-level neural network on an earphone-level CPU to automatically identify noise, filter it out, and improve speech understanding in real-time.”
The interest in hearing health isn’t limited to Sun and his grandmother. Another Orka co-founder is Xinke Lu, who developed hearing loss at a young age and now wears cochlear implants. Sun explained Lu was drawn to his vision for improving hearing aids because of her own lived experiences; along with their other co-founders, Chauncey Lu and Linkai Li, the quartet has set out to reimagine hearing aids and, by extension, remove much of the stigmas associated with bad hearing.
At the heart of the Orka One is—what else?—artificial intelligence and machine learning. Sun and team have leveraged the founders’ experiences in different technologies to build a product that more or less resemble AirPods, yet push harder on the AI component than what Apple is doing with their earbuds. The Orka One is controlled via smartphone app, available on iOS and Android, that functions similarly to the Watch app on iOS. Both companion apps act as a mothership of sorts for their respective devices. The Okra One receives software updates over-the-air and applied through its app. There’s even a compact AirPods-esque charging case for the Orka One when the battery runs low on juice as well.
The most exciting part, technologically speaking, is the AI component to the Orka One. Orka is using artificial intelligence and machine learning in innovative ways not merely for tech’s sake. According to Sun, one of the main reasons for relying on AI is to filter ambient noise such that voices are more intelligible. This falls more or less in line with what Apple’s done with Live Listen in recent years. Moreover, it’s exactly the sort of solution Sun’s grandma so desperately wanted.
“AI can help a lot to filter out human speech in real time,” Sun said of the benefits reaped by the Orka One from using AI and ML technology in this manner. “The really tricky part is [figuring out] how can you do that in real time on a device that is so small—it’s very small, tiny form factor with a small battery and a small processing chip. How can we [implement AI processes] in real time is tricky.”
In a similar vein to how Apple has telegraphed AirPods’ primary mission, Sun was clear in setting expectations for the Orka One. Whereas Apple, he said, is building more consumer-facing earbuds for passive purposes with only a soupçon of hearing health elements, Orka is marketing a bonafide medical device.
“I think [Apple’s] main customer they’re after is the mainstream market—they’re going after people with no hearing loss or very mild hearing loss,” Sun said. “For us, we see ourselves as [a] 100% health company; we only work on medical devices for now. We’re focusing on providing medical devices that help people with mild to moderately severe hearing loss to hear better. That’s our goal.”
Pragmatically speaking, accessing the Orka One starts, naturally, with visiting the product’s website. Sun and team have thought deeply about “not just innovating on the hearing aid itself,” he told me. They’ve taken a very Apple-like approach to controlling the whole stack, from the product design itself to the website to customer service and more. One area of particular sensitivity for Sun is economics: the team at Orka is acutely aware of not only the exorbitant costs of conventional hearing aids, but of the costs that come with running brick-and-mortar audiological clinics. Manufacturers and health maintenance organizations have to earn back what they spend somehow; charging customers more money is certainly one way they do so. Orka, by contrast, tries to keep prices as low as possible by selling direct to customers with no middlemen. In addition to obviously shipping the Orka One to someone’s doorstep, the company offers such services as virtual “unboxing” sessions with an audiologist, who can remotely perform an audiogram, as well as teach how to use the product. The remote nature of such amenities can make hearing aids even more accessible beyond the hearing aspect, insofar as it’s entirely plausible someone needing a hearing aid also finds getting to a community clinic troublesome. There’s even post-purchase consultations for customers as a way to check in and establish a “paper trail” of sorts in terms of progression. “We’ve noticed that the initial two months [of use] are just so critical—making sure that [people] are wearing the hearing aids long enough so that they’re getting comfortable with [it] so they can get the most out of the device,” Sun said. “By doing that, we’re able to bring the overall cost down.”
Price-wise, Sun explained the company estimates the Orka One will ultimately cost around $1200 to $1300 in the United States. The number, he said, represents “what we believe is a much more accessible price point for users.”
Looking towards the future, Sun’s main goal is simple: keep pushing.
It’s easy to get in the weeds about all the intricate, albeit cool and nerdy, details about how the Orka One functions. As Steve Jobs was known to often say, technology alone is not enough. Sun and his team are running a business, but they’re very much rooted in the altruistic notion to genuinely help people hear better. They want their device to ultimately be a wearable computer that, he told me, “once you put on, you forget about.” The team is committed to do their part in shepherding the healthcare industry towards a more modern form that embraces cutting-edge tech like that in Orka’s hearing aid. They want to make their dent in the universe by making hearing aids accessible and approachable to everyone.
“We want to focus very heavily on on this—we want to make sure that our hearing aids can push the healthcare industry forward,” Sun said. “We want to change the conversation around this product category [hearing aids]. Once the product is super functional, then we can really kind of hammer down on what we set out to do: to make people want a hearing aid [instead of being] something people are forced to have, because they need them. We want to make sure [hearing aids] are something that people are willing to have or like even… [we want to] make them desirable to people. They could be a very cool [fashion] statement.”