As AB introduces Marvel CI, a new series of cochlear implant sound processors for adults and children, we caught up with Marc Secall, who was instrumental in the inception and development of the Marvel platform, to get the origin story on these innovations that feature many world’s-firsts.
Tell us a little about your work with Phonak and AB.
MS: Prior to joining AB this year as Global VP, Research and Development, I was with Phonak, AB’s sister company and the world’s leading developer of hearing aids. The opportunity to work on breakthrough innovations has always been a big driver for me. When I started in 2007, my first role was to assess how to integrate digital communication technology into hearing aids. What has become our daily reality today was back then a technology revolution.
We started off the development with the most challenging application: implementing a new digital assistive listening device. It was essential that it transmits over a longer distance, and offers ease of use and the best sound quality. Our goal was to help thousands of people in their daily lives by significantly improving their speech understanding in noisy environments.
Back then, communication technology was still analog, and FM transmission was the standard. The initial mindset of the organization was to create a digital technology that offers the same features as FM, but with an improved audio quality. Soon it became clear that this technology had much more potential. So I made it my mission to change that mindset and to motivate the organization to aspire for more, to not only find a solution to a problem, but to create a great solution. My motto was: let’s make the impossible possible.
In 2013, we did bring this great solution to life. It was named Roger because “Roger that,” or simply “Roger,” is a phrase used in aviation and the military to confirm that a message has been received and understood. It was the first off-body integrated digital wireless communication system for hearing aids, and it set a new benchmark in terms of sound quality, speech understanding, functionality, and ease of use. In a short time, Roger became the de facto standard in the market. Roger also paved the way for many future applications and was the basis for the communication technology in Marvel.
Tell us more about the development of Marvel.
MS: In 2012, our team had the opportunity to determine the next breakthrough technology in hearing aid communication, and we had our eyes set on direct Bluetooth connectivity. This had been an industry goal for a long time, and there were ongoing exchanges between the manufacturers to explore this possibility.
At that time, no one really believed it could be done. Bluetooth is a monster when it comes to complexity and power consumption. The tiny hearing aid batteries simply didn’t have the capacity to enable Bluetooth streaming long enough for meaningful usage. Multiple teams of engineers from various manufacturers looked into it and concluded that it was simply impossible.
Nevertheless, our team decided to pursue this endeavor, and we were able to convince the management board to heavily invest in it. Again, we went big. Aiming for more than just Bluetooth, we developed a much broader connectivity solution that would also allow communication between two hearing aids, with smartphone apps and remote controls, integration of Roger, as well as remote fitting.
We wanted all these features to work simultaneously, and again, we pushed the limits of what was possible. A smartphone has dedicated systems for each communication application, such as WiFi, Bluetooth, and cellular. But for a tiny hearing aid, we had to develop a single system that could accommodate each function.
There were additional requirements as well. The device needed to be energy efficient enough to run on hearing aid batteries. This all needed to happen with a seamless user experience. And it needed to offer a great sound quality.
This was the project that ultimately created Marvel. It was one of the biggest challenges of my career, but also one of the most exciting and rewarding experiences so far.
Marvel is widely considered a game changer for the hearing industry. Can you tell us why?
MS: Marvel achieved a lot of firsts. It was the first entirely hands-free phone solution. It was the first “made-for-all” Bluetooth connectivity solution that works with iOS, Android, and Windows platforms. It was also the first to allow Bluetooth binaural audio streaming and direct Roger integration. When it comes to media streaming, a study proved it was best in class in terms of sound quality.*
Before Marvel, the hearing aid industry was very niche. It typically lagged behind mainstream technology and was usually ignored in terms of innovation. Marvel’s success resonated beyond expectations and sparked a lot of interest within the general consumer goods industry. We had developed the best communication technology ever seen in a consumer product. In fact, Marvel won the 2019 CES Innovation Award for Accessibility and the 2019 Edison Award in the Consumer Electronics & Information Technology category.
Suddenly, our technology in a stigmatized medical prosthetic was “cooler” than the one in a mobile phone or personal wearable device. I was proud to be told that it made our hearing aid wearers want to show off what their devices can do, rather than trying to hide them. People often refer to them as technological jewels!
Phonak has sold more than two million Marvel hearing aids so far. This is the solution that hearing aid wearers were looking for. Wireless connectivity has become a huge part of our lives. And knowing that our work has helped so many hearing aid wearers to take advantage of this technology and enjoy it with ease and convenience, is what is most rewarding for me. The result is far beyond expectations!
We’re now bringing the benefit of Marvel to people with cochlear implants. Do you think they will appreciate it as much as hearing aid wearers have?
MS: Absolutely. AB has taken over the entire Marvel platform. The benefits that the Marvel hearing aid wearers have been experiencing are now available in the Marvel cochlear implant sound processors. There are no limitations and we are truly riding on the success of Marvel.
This platform enables a lot of features that CI wearers will appreciate. StereoZoom, the binaural microphone technology, and RogerDirect will enable better hearing in noisy places, or situations where the speaker is farther away. Direct audio streaming from a wide variety of devices with excellent sound quality – these are all features that CI wearers, adults and children alike, will find invaluable.
Coincidentally, as Marvel has transitioned from Phonak to AB, so have you. What made you decide to take up the role of Global VP of R&D with AB?
MS: AB and Phonak are sister brands within the Sonova group. Together, we are a total hearing solutions provider. But no one makes as much of an impact on people’s lives as AB does. Helping to develop technology that restores a sense and enables a deaf child to hear and grow up in the same way as any other is a rare privilege.
I think by now you know that I like to take on “impossible” challenges and to think big. I am proud to have pushed the Phonak team to usher in the series of innovations that started with Roger, to Marvel hearing aids, and now Marvel CI. I am excited to continue that journey with AB and discover what else is possible. Cochlear implants have so much potential for further improvements and innovations, and I cannot wait to make them possible for our CI wearers!
*Rodrigues, T. (2018). Media Streaming: The sound quality preferred by hearing aid users. Phonak Field Study News.
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