Walk down your street or sit on any train or bus and just count the number of people who are attached to their phone or audio device via a cable - using headphones of one style or other. Some of those headphones are successful at confining the chosen musical content solely to the user themselves, while others (unintentionally) allow everyone nearby to get in the groove ..or not, as the case may be.
Headphones are nothing new, but with the definitive killer technology in the wearables marketplace still waiting to make its appearance, their role is certainly changing. They signify the arrival of a potential successor technology nipping at the heels of wearables. All that’s needed is to change just one letter: exit wearables, enter hearables.
Wearables fatigue, says the industry, has set in because users are unwilling to change their behaviour to adapt to or wholeheartedly embrace wearable technology. Hearables, on the other hand, already have a well-established base. So there’s no need for change - which gives the technology a good leg-up to begin with.
In fact, hearables enter the field from two separate starting points. There are those who use headphones, earphones, earbuds, call them what you will, to relay their choice of listening, whether that is as part of their daily commute to the office or in their work-out at the gym. The elderly and the hard of hearing are similarly dependent on their hearing aids to help them make better sense of the otherwise increasingly distant and confusing world. Those who’ve adopted fitness-orientated wearables are quite likely to forget to take them to wear while exercising, while music aficionados and the elderly are highly likely to remember to carry or wear their devices because they represent such an essential part of their everyday life. That’s the current view of the industry anyway.
Apple put its seal of approval on hearable technology last year with the announcement in September of its wireless Bluetooth® AirPods and also of its own wireless chip (used in Beats headphones). The chip helps with the pairing of the headphones, looking after not only power management, but also balancing the syncing of the two earpieces.
However you define hearable technology, whether it is wireless earbuds with any number of advanced features, or something closer to a hearing aid, this technology is intended to add to or enhance your listening in some way or other.
Doppler Labs, maker of the Here One earbuds, has said of hearable technology: “Microsoft put a computer on every desk. Our goal is to put a computer in every ear." The company has certainly done some special things in terms of sound quality, although there is a distinct shortfall when it comes to battery life. But the main selling point for Here One is based around the eight filters the earbuds offer for shutting out or accentuating sound in different situations—in a restaurant, for example, or while commuting. There’s also the ability to stream music, layer your listening (allow in some of the sounds of the real world while you’re enjoying your choice of music tracks), plus use Siri or Google Now controls.
Doppler Labs also has plenty of plans for future updates and partnerships. ‘Smart suggestions’ will, for instance, recognise that you have walked into a restaurant and will prompt you to turn on the restaurant filter. In the future you could hear live commentary or be given player stats while at a football game. But Doppler has to sort out its power problem first.
Nuheara has also worked on filtering out sound, with its IQbuds. It is one of many companies that have jumped on the crowdfunding bandwagon to raise money to develop their ideas. Filtering sound has definite advantages. Many teenagers already have damaged hearing, due predominantly to listening to music through earbuds. One audiologist, William H. Shapiro, puts the figure as high as 20%. Maybe filtering out external sounds would encourage them to turn down the levels of their music, although that seems a little unlikely.
Other developers have jumped on the fitness bandwagon that has previously been the mainstay of wearables vendors. Vi from LifeBEAM is described as “an AI personal trainer who lives in bi-sensing earphones… she learns and evolves over time to help you achieve your goals. Vi adapts to your fitness level and designs a personal workout for you”. The company raised an impressive $1.7 million on Kickstarter to launch the product, which connects to your smartphone via Bluetooth. Unsurprisingly, Vi relies on a big (100MB) app, which is where the artificial intelligence element comes in. The device aims to push you to increase the intensity your fitness routine with encouragement provided by a distinctly human voice, although you can decide how hard you actually want the push to be.
Jabra Sport Elite is another hearable aimed at the fitness market. The earplugs communicate with one another via near field magnetic induction, while the companion Sport Life app provides coaching direct to your ear. The device’s ‘Hear Through’ mode is designed to let in ambient noise, allowing you to engage in conversation without removing the earplugs. Alternatively, the secondary earplug can be removed, leaving the primary earbud operating happily in mono mode.
The Bragi Dash earplugs are yet another entrant to the fitness hearable marketplace. While the earplugs are said to be well-fitting and comfortable, the accompanying fitness app leaves something to be desired. Ambient noise is blocked out completely. That’s great for listening but not so good for cyclists, who, from a safety point of view, really need to be able to hear the traffic that’s around them. Another hearable that is designed to improve your health, although in a much less active way, is Brainno. This hearable device measures the activity of your brain and heart while the Bluetooth-based companion app, Brainno Coach, offers you “tailored activities to hone your cognitive functions." The device aims to help you reduce your stress levels, while also improving your memory and raising your levels of concentration.
Other hearables have opted for a language-based value add. At least three different companies have opted for incorporating real time translation facilities: Pilot from Waverly Labs, Clik from Mymanu and Translate One2One from Lingmo International. The first two are still only in development; talking in tongues is more difficult than originally thought, it appears.
So those are some of the features offered by the current crop of hearables. Whatever their unique selling points may be, none of them will get anywhere if they don’t start from the basis of being well-fitting (all ears are differently sized and shaped) and offering a half-decent sound quality. Maintaining a Bluetooth connection to a smartphone when required—and coping with heavy power drain seem to be the biggest problem areas for hearable right now. Those basic points aside, the world remains your oyster in terms of coming up with a product that gets everyone talking. What do your ears want to hear? Will your chip design provide the audio experiece you want without the need for Bluetooth smartphone pairing?
Mirko Bernacchi joined the Italian branch of Mouser Electronics in Assago in 2012 as a Technical Support Specialist. With more than 25 years of experience in electronics, Mirko provides expert technical assistance and support as well as customer service for our Italian office. He worked as a test development engineer at Celestica and Service for Electronic Manufacturing. At IBM he was a Burn-in memory modules test engineer and an Optical transceiver card test engineer, responsible for the installation of new test equipment, production test problem management and supplier interface as well as the introduction of new test routines.
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