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Somerville startup’s glasses can live-caption conversations for the hard of hearing

Alex Westner cofounded Xander, a startup that has developed glasses that generate text captions of a conversation in real time for the wearer.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

The high-tech glasses from Somerville startup Xander look like they might be for virtual reality or video gaming, but the chunky, black spectacles actually have a simpler and more important purpose.

Designed for people who are hard of hearing or deaf, the Xander glasses generate text captions of a conversation in real time for the wearer. And the device works without a connection to a smartphone or the Internet.

The glasses, unveiled at CES in Las Vegas in January, come as the need for assistive hearing devices is large and growing. Almost 50 million people in the US have experienced some hearing loss, and 25 percent of people aged 65 to 74 and 50 percent of those 75 and older have disabling hearing loss, according to the National Institutes of Health.

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Currently in testing, the glasses will go on sale later this year for several thousand dollars a pair, though the company has not disclosed the exact price. That’s expensive for a consumer tech gadget, but less expensive than prescription hearing aids, which can cost $4,000 to $5,000. (Cheaper over-the-counter hearing aids approved for sale by the FDA last year are intended for people with mild to moderate hearing loss.)

The glasses also compete with mobile apps that use a phone to convert speech to text. But the apps require the person who is hard of hearing to stare at the phone’s screen instead of looking at the person they are talking to.

Rachel Kolb, who studies deafness and communications as a junior fellow at Harvard, said she sees the potential advantages of the glasses.

“Seeing captioned text can indeed ease the tricky process of lip-reading or listening with a hearing loss,” she said. “And, given high levels of speed and accuracy, can create greater ease in everyday conversations.”

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Xander chief executive and cofounder Alex Westner became interested in assistive technologies a few years ago after he was diagnosed with macular degeneration. As an experienced audio engineer, including working at the MIT Media Lab in the 1990s, Westner was able to find auditory tech solutions for people with vision issues. At the same time, he noticed there were many fewer tech products for people who were hard of hearing.

He described the current Xander device, which has three hours of battery life, as “tech glasses,” comparable to bulky but stylish sunglasses. But the company expects to be able to shrink the size, reduce the price, and improve the looks of the glasses over the next few years, he said. (Xander isn’t meant to compete with the more capable smart glasses that Silicon Valley has produced over the years, including Google’s glasses that had a camera built in and a long rumored product from Apple.)

Alex Westner, pictured here, wearing the Xander glasses, which generate text captions of a conversation in real time for the wearer.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

The glasses have their own processor and front-facing microphones and are designed to convert conversational speech into text captions. They do not currently work for watching television or movies, which have more complicated auditory sound tracks.

Sue Schy, 66, has been dealing with hearing loss since she was a child. The middle school nurse has a cochlear implant and often relies on lip-reading during conversations. Mask-wearing during the pandemic made that impossible.

After trying the Xander glasses, Schy said she was “completely blown away” by the accuracy and comfort of the device, which allowed her to maintain more eye contact during conversations.

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“My eyes generally focus on someone’s mouth in order for me to hear,” said Schy, who is also chair of the Boston chapter of the Hearing Loss Association of America. With the glasses, she said, “if I missed a word all I had to do was look up slightly because it was right in front of me.”

Since all of the speech-to-text processing occurs on the glasses, the device does not raise privacy issues that have cropped up for smartphone apps and smart speakers. That also means the glasses will work in places without Internet or cellular connectivity.

Users can control the font size and the positioning of the captions in their field of view with a touchpad on the side. Xander is also experimenting with adding voice control.

Still, the glasses and other devices won’t solve hearing issues completely, Rachel Kolb said. And she is concerned about affordability and insurance coverage.

“It’s important that we see technology as a tool that may be useful for particular people in particular situations, and not as a fix-all or as a cure for hearing loss,” Kolb said.


Aaron Pressman can be reached at aaron.pressman@globe.com. Follow him @ampressman.