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Cutting the cord

'Cars will be phones, clothes will be messaging devices; the earphone becomes just another interface' (Arthur Goldstuck, World Wide Worx)

Despite the social ridicule, the Bluetooth in-ear talk piece of the early 2000s is making a comeback, but this time branded as hearables and they’re cooler, smarter and more discrete.

Wireless Bluetooth ‘hearables’ made mainstream news last year when Apple announced its seventh generation iPhone would not feature the 3.5mm audio jack, forcing users to use Bluetooth headphones, or new headsets with an iOS-only Lightning connector.

This announcement conveniently coincided with the launch of its Airpods – wireless earpods which look and function exactly like regular Apple earpods, just without the cables.

Apple was one of the first smartphone manufacturers to make the controversial space-saving jump by doing away with the jack, but wireless hearables have been around for a while.

What’s a hearable?

Hearables are wireless, wearable computing earpieces which sit discretely inside the user’s ear. The left and right devices are separate from each other.

Hearables can be tethered to smartphones, but are also capable of standalone operations, such as playing music. They comprise of a computer chip, Bluetooth connection, speaker and microphone – some have sensors for fitness tracking, such as a heart rate monitor.

'True wireless'

Jabra Elite Sport Jabra Elite Sport
Audio company Jabra has been making wireless headphones for nearly two decades. Last year, it released a new pair called Elite Sport, which, like the Airpods, fall into the category of 'true wireless' as they’re two separate devices that stay put in the ears, without the use of a cable or extra peripheral.

James Pengelly-Marshall, senior director, Global Marketing Programmes, Jabra sees the more widespread removal of the audio jack from smartphones as a positive and Apple is simply catering to what the market wants.

In the company’s experience, he says, when customers first make the change to wireless, it can be a bit strange, for example, the obvious cables can signal to other train commuters that you don't want to be disturbed, but users soon get used to the experience.

However, Nick Hunn, CTO of WiFore Consulting says a player like Apple making such an unexpected entry into the hearables market heralds a period of major change.

“The result is likely to be a faster move to wireless headphones, an acceleration in the take-up of earbuds, and the prospect of an overall market revenue exceeding $40 billion in 2020,” he says.

Hunn says up until then, the space had been primarily driven by startups and audio companies making medical-grade hearing aids.

The trailblazers

Samsung Gear IconX SM-R150 Samsung Gear IconX SM-R150
One of the startups to first enter the space was Bragi. In 2014, the German-based company started a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for its Dash product which would store and play music, have biometrics built in, and operate via gesture control.

The ambitious product raised over $3 million from nearly 16 000 backers. However, the company was not able to hold up its promise of delivery within nine months. Those who pre-ordered only received the product in early 2016 – nearly two years after they had paid money for them.

The Dash was launched in South Africa last year. Bragi is one of the success stories of the hearables startup space, some others have over promised and never delivered.

Other semi-successful startups include Earin, RealLoud, and Ripplebuds - which had features ranging from basic to advanced, all were delivered late.

Hunn says although there were a lot of start-ups in the hearable space, most did not realise how difficult it was to design and manufacture the product.

“Among other things, it highlights that there’s a reason why hearing aids are expensive, which is that packing technology into such a limited space is remarkably difficult.”

Apple also had to delay the delivery of the Airpods by a few months.

World Wide Worx MD, Arthur Goldstuck says a host of big names in the tech space have also forayed their wireless headphone products, besides Apple.
“Sony is making the coolest technology, but not getting it to market effectively. Samsung is most aggressive in bringing such technology to market, Jabra is well-positioned in the fitness market, and Plantronics has a strong hold on the enterprise market.”

I hear you

The hearable is uniquely situated to incorporate artificial intelligence-driven virtual personal assistant technology into wearables. The user would be able to ask their assistant (be it Siri, Alexa, or Cortana) something in the same voice volume they would use to take calls and would hear a response in-ear.

The user could get information on anything the assistant has access to, such as directions, calendar entries, to-do lists and even send messages.

The software would also be able to provide tailored feedback to the wearer based on the information it has gathered from them through biometric sensors, or allow the user to easily access health data on the go.

Some of hearables in market already have ‘smart’ features, especially those which the primary use is fitness such as Jabra which offers users ‘intelligent audio coaching’.

Goldstuck says Amazon’s Alexa and other forms of AI will find their way into hearables.

In fact, he believes: “In the not-too distant future, the earbud will contain the entire phone, which will be voice controlled, and link wirelessly to other wearables that provide the range of functionality we currently have on the phone.

“But with far more applications and interface options, like gesture control, projected displays and remote control. Cars will be phones, clothes will be messaging devices; the earphone becomes just another interface.”

Another feature which is currently being experimented with in the hearables space includes translation. A couple of startups are trying to make author Douglas Adams fictional ‘babel fish’ a reality – whereby the hearable is able to hear a foreign language and translate it in real-time into the wearer’s ear.

This technology is still in development and nothing has come to market yet, but it’s easy to see the benefits it would bring, opening up communications channels between millions.

The opportunities for hearables are endless and it won’t be long before they are more commonplace. The only challenge will be trying to figure out if the person behind you in line, or in the lift is using one, asking you something, or just talking to themselves.

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