LAS VEGAS —U.S. Navy Seals, hearing aid users and audiophiles all need custom-fit earpieces to get the best sound and perhaps shield their ears from outside noise. New 3D ear scanning technology aims to replace the messy and imperfect "ear impression" method that is usually required for making customized earpieces starting from this year.
The 3D ear scanning starts by using a handheld probe to fill a person's ear canal with a fluid-filled membrane that fits snugly. That allows the scanner to beam fluorescent light throughout the liquid to create a 3D map of the ear canal— a digital image that can guide earpiece makers to make the best-fitting devices possible.
"Our belief is that the membrane — because it conforms very tightly to your canal all the way down to the tympanic membrane and all the way out to the concha — gives great opportunity to measure the ear in great detail," said Jeffrey Leathe, chairman and CEO of Lantos Technologies.
The current method of ear impressions fills each ear with a pasty silicone material to create a real 3D model. But the process remains uncomfortable and requires people to sit still for five minutes per ear, so that the 3D models can be shipped off to earpiece manufacturers. [ 8 Creepiest 3D Printed Objects ]
Ear impressions also remain surprisingly error-prone considering the cost of buying custom-fit earpieces for luxury headphones, Leathe said. And past efforts to make 3D scanners that rely on light and cameras proved less accurate than the ear impression method.
By comparison, the Lantos ear scanning method takes just one minute per ear and only creates a discomfort similar to experiencing mild changes in air pressure. To prove the point, the Cambridge-based Lantos gave a live demonstration here at CES 2013 on Jan. 7.
Lantos patented the 3D scanning technology developed by MIT based on the idea of targeting the $5.7 billion U.S. market for hearing aids. But the startup has also begun setting its sights on the $6 billion worldwide market for consumer headphones, where customers already pay hundreds of dollars for the best custom-fit headphones.
The U.S. military has also shown huge interest in the Lantos Technologies solution for custom-fit earpieces, said Darshana Zaveri, a partner at Catalyst Health Ventures and an investor in Lantos Technologies. Military members ranging from F-22 fighter pilots to Special Forces operators on the ground wear earpieces for both hearing protection and for in-ear communication headsets.
Lantos Technologies is still waiting on approval for its device from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. But the company seemed confident enough to predict the ear scanning technology could hit the market sometime in the second quarter of 2013.