The future of “smart” wearable devices could be in your ear, according to the “wireless evangelist” Nick Hunn. Hunn is working on a new market forecast report for wearable tech, and wrote in a preview that he expects “hearables,” or smart earbuds, to be worth over $5 billion by 2018. For context, a recent forecast (pdf) predicted a total market of $30 to $50 billion for wearables by that year. Here’s why he could be right:
Screens make things complicated
After the release of the futuristic romance movie Her, in which the main character falls in love with an artificially intelligent operating system who speaks to him mostly through an earpiece, the production designer KK Barrett told Wired that he’d banished most screens, and basically all physical interaction with computers. “We decided we didn’t want to have physical contact,” he said. “We wanted it to be natural. Hence the elimination of software keyboards as we know them.”
The effect is a simplification of user interface with software: People would ask for what they wanted in the same way they’d ask another person, and their smart devices would deliver. Wrists could stay bare, and actual cellphones would hardly ever emerge.
Google wants to make voice control as seamless and easy to use as a keyboard. Right now, the interface is being groomed for use with Google’s first smartwatch. But after it overcomes the challenges of making a tiny screen functional, it can move on to working without one.
The technology is already in progress
This isn’t Google’s only product in development that could help hearables happen. The company’s Moto X “superphone” is able to listen for voice commands constantly—even when it’s asleep. The chips that allow this constant listening does so with very little power.
But for voice recognition to be appealing, it has to be quicker. Most voice recognition requires an internet connection—even if you’re not asking your phone to search the internet. When you ask Apple’s Siri to open iTunes, for example, your command goes to the cloud for interpretation. The delay of a few seconds is enough to make voice commands impractical for a lot of tasks. Intel thinks it has the solution: It has plans for an offline alternative, allowing for faster responses. Intel’s head of wearables, Mike Bell, told Quartz earlier this year that the company will make a processor powerful enough to parse out voice commands on its own—and small enough to fit on a wearable.
Intel is partnering with a third party to make a wireless headset that connects to your smartphone. Called Jarvis, it’s expected to behave like its Iron Man franchise namesake: The headset will understand your voice commands and respond to them verbally.
Your ear is a better home for a fitness tracker than your wrist
“Few people realize,” Nick Hunn writes in the preview of his market forecast, “that the ear is a remarkably good place to measure many vital signs.” It doesn’t move around like the wrist does, which will make readings like heart rate, blood pressure, temperature, and pulse oximetry more accurate. Several companies are already exploring the potential for health sensors in the ear: Dublin-based Zinc Software is raising money to make a hearing-aid-like clip-on that monitors heart rate for biofeedback purposes, and iRiver has a set of workout headphones that capture movement and heart rate. Apple recently filed a patent for earbuds that capture biometric data, as well. Maybe Jawbone’s next health and fitness tracker should look a little more like one of its Bluetooth earpieces.
We’re used to having stuff in our ears
One of the biggest barriers faced by all wearables is social acceptance. We’ve grown used to staring down at our phones in lots of public places—and even in more intimate settings. But something about the idea of a constant division of our attention—by way of a visual interface like Google Glass, for example– still bothers many of us. If you’ve been outside anytime in the past five years or so, you already know that earbuds have overcome that problem. We’re used to our peers listening to music constantly or shouting into their headphone cords as they walk down the street. So having a constant connection to your personal audio assistant won’t look out of place.
It can start with music
To break us into the concept, hearables can make our music listening experience smarter. Intel has previewed a set of heart rate-tracking headphones that pick your music based on your running pace. When you slow down, your music will push you to go faster.
But there’s room for even smarter music: Cone, a smart speaker coming out this summer, will act as a full-service music curator that learns your music habits and predicts your every auditory whim. Now imagine how great it would be if Cone fit into your ear, instead of sitting on your counter. Obviously it’s a tall order to shrink a new device so quickly; but who wouldn’t want a smart, in-ear jukebox?
What’s one thing you can’t live without at the gym? Odds are, headphones rank pretty high up on your list. For many people, a fitness tracker such as a Fitbit or Jawbone would be up there as well. And if you fall into the category that can’t live without either, there’s good news – the next generation of fitness trackers combine the best of both.
These new types of wearables, dubbed “hearables,” promise to offer more accurate measurements, longer battery life and a host of other benefits over wrist-worn fitness trackers. Hearables might be the next big thing, according to Scott Snyder, a senior fellow with the University of Pennsylvania's Mack Institute for Innovation Management and president and co-founder of the mobile strategy company Mobiquity. “Research suggests that 55 percent of Americans plan to use a wearable device in the coming year,” Snyder says. “Most of the attention to-date has been on the wrist, with a barrage of new devices from wrist-worn trackers to sensorized smartwatches, but hearables are makings strides and leveraging a mainstream consumer accessory – the earbud.”
Earlier this year, LG Electronics launched its first hearable, the Heart Rate earphone, which measures (you guessed it) your heart rate, speed, steps and calories, plus provides audio feedback on your workout. Another hearable, The Dash, which is a combination of a Bluetooth headset, music player and waterproof fitness tracker, raised more than $3 million on Kickstarter – a sign that there's a substantial market for these products.
So why the ear? It turns out that tracking your vitals through the ear just makes sense, Snyder says. “The ear happens to be a good place to pick up blood flow as it moves consistently in and out of the ear, and the membrane is relatively thin,” he says. “We can pick up heart rate, blood flow and even oxygen levels at an accuracy rate comparable to the chest strap.”
Hearables also have the added benefit of fitting seamlessly into your routine, says Steven LeBoeuf, president and co-founder of Valencell, a research and design company focused on sensors and technology. “If I’m going to the gym and I forget my fitness tracker, it’s no big deal,” he says. “If I forget my headphones, I’ll turn around and head home to pick them up.”
Plus, with hearables, you don’t have to worry as much about battery life, since many can be charged right through your phone's headphone jack, LeBoeuf says. Having to take off your tracker to charge it is a big reason people stop using it. “When people take off the wrist tracker to charge it, many never put it back on,” he says.
The one downside to hearables is that you won’t be able to capture data as often as you can with wrist-worn trackers, says Joshua New, a policy analyst with the Center for Data Innovation. “The hearable form factor is a double-edged sword in this sense,” he says. “Wristbands benefit from their potential to be always-on, in that they can collect biometric data while you sleep, run, swim, go on a date or sit in a meeting. Wearing headphones is not always viable in these situations.”
Despite the limitation, it’s only a matter of time until these products become mainstream, Snyder says, and the company he believes is best poised to take advantage of this market is Apple. “It seems like Apple has a huge opportunity to grab this category and tap into its newly acquired Beats product line – where they could offer music from the watch or iPhone and earbuds to capture health information and store in HealthKit for tracking and management,” he says. (HealthKit is an app for iPhones that acts as a hub for fitness apps and displays all collected information in one place.)
New sees the future of the market as a little more cloudy, and says it still remains to be seen what consumers look for in these products. “We’ll see how the market shapes up for these devices,” he says. “It’s not yet clear whether consumers will buy headphones because they are smart or because of other features like the quality of the sound, weight and whether they stay in place while exercising.”
But even if they don’t become the most widely used type of wearable, hearables allow the people who do use them to collect data on their health habits, and anything that does that has the potential to be beneficial, New says. “There are many different form factors for wearables – eyewear, watches, even smart onesies for babies and smart collars for dogs,” he says. “By making these wearable devices more adoptable, we will see more data being collected, and this is always a good thing.”