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The Sound Is Really Outasight

Annual Design Awards



Danish designers, long famous for their contemporary furniture, have come up with a prizewinner that's practically invisible. In fact, that's the whole point. The digital hearing aid, SENSO CIC, weighs less than the ordinary butterfly--about one gram--and nestles discreetly in the ear canal.

The challenge facing the design team at Widex, in Vaerloese, Denmark, had less to do with aesthetics than logistics. Their goal was to jam a computer that can handle 50 million calculations per second into a tiny package and create a pliable casing for it so that each machine could be molded to the shape of the user's ear. But the fit couldn't be too snug: Users had to be able to change the tiny battery once a week.

Back in 1990, when Widex a global leader in hearing aids, first began working on SENSO CIC, the microprocessors then available were still far too big for the inner-ear computer. But betting on the so-called Moore's Law, which postulates a doubling of chip capacity every 18 months, "they started designing it five years before the technology was ready," says Jens Bernsen, managing director of the Danish Design Center in Copenhagen.

Their starting point is a skin of malleable plastic. This enables technicians to make a mold of the shape of the patient's ear, then form the hearing aid to fit it. The resulting casing houses a loudspeaker and amplifier, both of which can be withdrawn through the tiny battery opening for servicing. To remove the hearing aid, the user pulls on a little string. By the time Moore's Law had worked its magic, Widex had a casing ready for the gnat-size computer chip.

The result is a hearing aid that can be programmed for the specific problems of each customer. It has features that deal with the most difficult of problems for the hard of hearing: speech enhancement in noisy environments, clarity of sound, and reduction of wind noise. Price: $4,000 to $6,000, about twice an analog set.

Widex isn't the only Danish company designing for visibility. Pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk sells an insulin syringe disguised as a ballpoint pen. There are times when the appropriate design is the one that cannot be seen. The Danes get it.By Stephen Baker in ParisReturn to top

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