Hearables, which are computers that fit inside your ear, are going to be a big deal. Their capabilities will go way beyond what traditional wireless headphones or hearing aids can accomplish. In this post, I'll explain why we will all be augmenting our hearing within just a few years.
Let's first define the term. A hearable is a computational device that fits in your ear and is wirelessly connected to other devices, and thus ultimately to the Internet. Hearables may perform a wide range of tasks, from enhancing your hearing ability, to measuring your biometrics (such as your heart rate), to providing you with information and services. Most will be 2-way communicators, including both a speaker and microphone.
Your phone will still be with you most of the time, but will be spending a lot more of it's time tucked away in your pocket or purse.
Why focus on the ear?
Wearables are widely hailed as the next big wave of technology. There are many places on your body that it might make sense to sport wearable technology. These include your wrist (e.g. Apple Watch), your feet (e.g. Nike+), your eyes (e.g. Microsoft HoloLens), beneath your skin, and of course, in your ears.
For a few years now I've been thinking that in-ear technology that is built around an audio/voice interface will have a valuable position in our constellation of wearables. Voice interfaces haven't really taken off yet for two main reasons: 1) the accuracy just wasn't good enough (now mostly fixed) and 2) nobody wants to be in an office where everyone is talking to their computer at the same time, and where everyone can hear everyone else's device (and perhaps sensitive or private information) talking out loud.
There are two key advantages of an ear-based interface that make it appealing. Firstly, it's personal...nobody else can hear what you're hearing. Secondly, in-ear technology is ready for prime time right now, whereas augmented and mixed reality technology, which focus on a visual interface, are still several years away. Even when AR/MR hit the mainstream, audio interfaces will still be less distracting than visual ones for a lot of use cases. And you'll need audio to go along with your AR/MR experiences anyway.
Audio interfaces are discrete and natural. If implemented well they can be just like having a personal assistant who whispers just the right information in your ear at just the right time.
The major tech companies have realized that to make their platforms even more indispensable to modern life, they need to get even more personal. They must transfer their value from the phone and bring it even closer. Services like Google Assistant, Cortana, Alexa, Siri and others are most valuable when they are right there and available totally hands-free. Apple's delayed AirPods are likely the beginning of a whole new platform upon which they will create new value and through which they will deliver new services. And as I outline below, an avalanche of interesting startups are rushing into this space too.
The technological under-pinning of wireless audio devices, Bluetooth, is also getting a major revamp this year. Bluetooth 5.0 will quadruple range, double bandwidth, and dramatically reduce the power consumption for stereo audio connections, making it possible to build devices that can operate for days on a single charge.
The hearables are coming.
What new things will we be able to do with hearables?
OK, so why would you want to stick a small computer in your ear? Well, there are lots of good reasons why. Hearables won't just improve your hearing and make it even more convenient to listen to music. They will enable you to communicate in new ways, and maybe even translate language for you in real time.
Let's review the major applications of hearables. I've broken them down into major categories (that get more and more interesting as you go down the list):
- Traditional sound-related applications
- Augmented hearing
- Biometric capabilities
- Information/communications services.
Let's review these one by one. And yes, I'm saving the best for last. If you can't wait, feel free to scroll down until you see the Babel Fish picture :)
Traditional sound-related applications
This group of applications are essentially what you're able to do today with existing products spanning the headphone, hearing aid, and ear plug markets, only better.
Just like headphones, hearables will enable you to listening to music and make phone calls via a bluetooth connection to your phone. They will also help mitigate hearing loss, boosting sound levels, or intelligently boosting the signal/noise ratio for sounds you're interested to hear, like voices. They will likely not market themselves as hearing aids though, partly to avoid stigma, but mostly because you need to get FDA approval to do that. Hearables can also capture sound from one side of the head and redirect it to the other ear for people like my pal, Mark, who was born deaf in one ear. Some hearables will also offer hearing protection, digitally compressing sound that enters the ear canal to limit the volume of sound and minimize damage when in noisy environments like concerts, industrial, or construction sites. This is the focus of the new ProSounds H2P product.
Augmented hearing (better than normal hearing)
Hearables will go way beyond what traditional headphones and hearing aids can do today. New devices like the Hear One will allow you to decide how the world sounds to you, applying your own personal EQ and noise reduction. Want to hear a little more or less bass while at a concert? No problem. Where hearables start to get interesting is when you can apply increasing levels of intelligence to how you process and thus perceive sound.
Smart noise cancellation allows you to remove the sounds you don't want to hear (babies crying at the mall, the rumble of an air conditioner at your office, plane noise, the screech of a subway train) but keep the sounds you don't want to miss. For safety, cyclists need to be able to hear traffic noise while listening to music. And parents will still want to hear the sound of a child crying upstairs while watching TV.
Enhanced or "bionic" hearing is one of the promises of some hearables. These devices will intelligently boost quieter sounds and enable you to have better than perfect normal human hearing. This could be useful for first responders listening for survivors, hunters tracking animals, and law enforcement and military chasing bad guys. Enhanced hearing will also come in handy for people at the back of a room listening to under-amplified public speakers. While we're at it, why not build hearables with the ability to replay the last 10 seconds of what you just heard in case you missed something?