Hear That? It's The Sound Of Your New Hearing Aid, The iPhone

Back in 2007, Amy Tenderich wrote about the need for Apple to share its renowned industrial design and user-friendliness with the medical device community. Her plea wasn’t necessarily for Apple to get involved in the field, but rather for it to help device manufacturers innovate and produce devices that people might actually want to use. As it turns out, Apple may be be joining the fray anyway: the iPhone, with its App Store and recently-added support for third party peripherals, may soon become an extremely powerful medical tool.

We’ve still got a ways to go before we start seeing glucose monitors and blood pressure pumps pop up with iPhone support, but some health and disability-related apps are already beginning to emerge. One of the first is a new application called soundAMP (iTunes Link), a hearing aid application that was just released on the App Store, and is available for $9.99.

The application is pretty straightforward: it takes everything that reaches the phone’s microphone, and makes it louder. You can manually adjust just how powerful you’d like the sound amplification to be, and can also choose from several different equalizer settings to specify which frequencies you’d like boosted most. There are also a number of handy features for repeating something if you missed it the first time: a button at the top of the app will replay the last five seconds of everything you’ve heard, and there’s also a button that lets you listen through a 30 second buffer of recent audio.

As far as the microphone goes, you can choose to either use the built-in mic on the handset, or an external mic, like the one that’s built into the standard iPhone headphones. In my testing I found that using the phone’s mic worked better than the headphone mic, largely because you can direct it towards whatever you’d like to listen to.

So how well does it actually work? Truth be told, I’ve had little experience with ‘real’ hearing aids, so I’m not entirely sure how well this stacks up as far as volume and microphone quality go. And frankly, if you’ve got significant and long-term hearing problems, you would be much better off with a device dedicated to the purpose instead of having to carry an iPhone with you at all times. But for more casual use — be it in a lecture hall with a quiet speaker, or a wedding when when you want to make sure you hear every word that’s being spoken — this could definitely prove useful. In my testing all sounds became significantly louder, though never to the point that they were painfully loud. That said, it isn’t perfect — I noticed that ambient noise like fans can become irritating at higher levels, which seems like something the app could filter out.

Finally, even if you’re not hard of hearing, soundAMP is worth checking out. It’s surprisingly fun to give yourself superhuman hearing while you’re just walking down the street.