Ringing in the Years (and Ears): What I’d Like to Hear in 2016


For the last 30 years, the tech revolution in PCs, Macs, and Smartphones has been largely connected with our eyes, not our ears. 2016 will mark the beginning of the commercialization of virtual and augmented reality, and although our visual experience will continue to be the main focus for these radical changes, it’s time our ears started playing a much more important supporting role.

I’m at CES this week; something I’ve been doing since the mid-1980s. This year, though, has put me in two states of mind. First, the overload of new products and exhibits is beyond what a mind can comprehend. Second, the high frequency hearing loss I have in both ears, and the ringing (tinnitus) in my right ear. It was a loud CES party six years ago that took my ears beyond their limits.

From college on, I attended concerts with friends. We knew the bands were too loud for safe listening, but we were young and invincible.  Invariably, we would leave saying, “My ears are ringing.” But there was a difference for me. Where the ringing in the ears would last a day or two for my friends, for me, it would sometimes last for weeks, often accompanied by minor numbness inside the ear itself.

As I got older, audiologists warned me that the numbness was basically nerves that were really unhappy, and potentially damaged. But I just wasn’t listening, and I kept cranking up the volume. By my 40s, I would occasionally bring “acoustically flat” musicians earplugs to concerts (like the Etymotic ETY plugs). I had to take them in and out of my ears continually as music got louder or softer, or if I wanted to speak with my wife and friends.

Through the years, I’ve thought about ears and sound, and had ideas that I was too stupid to patent. To me, sound needs to be a digitally enhanced sense that WE get to control. I want my hearing to be SMART.

I love music. I love concerts. But I find it maddening that a third party can control the volume, and will turn up the volume to the point of pain and ear damage to myself and others. It’s also challenging at parties, when people in an enclosed room start speaking louder and louder until everyone is shouting (and numbing to me). What I want is a way to actively control the volume, sound quality, and my environment.  I want to tune my environment to my hearing, and to my unique sound profile. I want to be able to focus on who I am talking to, even in a loud and crowded room. I started talking about these concepts ten plus years ago, and am only now starting to hear the changes.

Now I’m expecting a plethora of virtual and augmented reality announcements in the upcoming weeks and months, with much of the attention focused on … Next Page »

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Jeffrey Belk was at Qualcomm for almost 14 years, in positions including senior vice president global marketing, and senior vice president, strategy and market development. He serves on the boards of the Wireless Life Sciences Alliance, the UCSD Alumni Association, and the EvoNexus advisory board. He is founder and chairman of Velocity Growth, and has invested several other local companies. Follow @

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