Nivedit Majumdar Nivedit Majumdar

Pixel Buds, AirPods, and the future of the Hearable

There are two ways wearables can truly evolve: one, by incorporating AI, and two, by becoming more non-obtrusive.

Wrist bands and smartwatches were (and still are) in vogue since 2014, but let’s face it – there’s only so much that OEMs and users can accomplish with a device on the wrist. It hinders user interaction with phones, might not create pathways for more seamless experiences, and is getting too common (to the point of being hackneyed, perhaps?).

Enter, hearables.

2017 saw the popularisation of smart devices that don’t need to be on the wrist anymore, and can be used as earphones. The most notable of these devices include Apple’s AirPods, and Google’s Pixel Buds. Which brings about the big question that I’ll be trying to answer in this article: what is the market potential for hearables?

PROS

There’s a reason hearables are gaining traction lately, the primary reason being the various advantages that they bring to the table.

Earphone jacks on phones are (inexplicably, and inevitably) becoming a thing of the past. This somehow shifts the focus on developing more powerful Bluetooth based wireless earphones. Now while OEMs have always been adept at doing so, the next onus comes on making sure that one specific earphone does more than another one, and this is where OEMs load up their wireless earphones with some smart technology.

Apple’s AirPods are the best example for this trend, wherein they were introduced solely to compensate for the lack of a headphone jack in the iPhone 7. But not just that, some nifty features were also part of the whole package – things like calling up Siri by tapping the earphone on the side, and pausing music automatically when the AirPods are removed from the user’s ears.

Similarly, there’s Google’s take on the smart earphone in the form of Pixel Buds. The company is touting it to be an earphone with AI built in – and unsurprisingly so. I mean, the earphone can literally translate different languages in real time. Goes to show how voice and AI can transform human interactions, doesn’t it?

But, there’s more.

Simple wireless earphones (let’s not call them hearables for some time) of the near future might come with superior audio quality, improved battery life, and layered listening – wherein the user could control how much of the sound from the earphones is allowed to interfere with the sound of the user’s environment. The latter has been part of bone conduction earphones for quite some time now.

Smarter hearables, on the other hand, might be a little more interesting. We’re talking about voice enabled search, OS integration, and some QS centric features such as activity tracking, more accurate vital sign readings, and perhaps even sleep tracking.

Quantified Self AT THE HELM

The next big thing for hearables? Lifelogging.

Activity tracking has always been the central selling point for most wearables, and the case shouldn’t be different for hearables either. According to a Lifewire article, hearables will be able to measure important biometrics such as heart rate, blood pressure, pulse oximetry, body temperature and respiration rate. Not just that, steps taken, calories burnt and sleep cycles might also be accounted for.

Devices like the Bragi Dash are bringing in lifelogging capabilities to hearables.

Since lifelogging is always a two way process, it would be surprising if fitness coaching and dedicated guidance is also a part of the smart earphones experience. And this would be where AI comes in – analysing the recorded data, and accordingly coming up with plans and / or regimes.

Maybe sometime in the future, the AI engine will be built within the hearable itself. But for now, that’s a distant possibility.

HEARING AIDS?

Not a factor that’s usually taken into consideration, but smart earphones can actually enable further use cases – such as hearing aids.

When smart earphone double up as hearing aids, they can enable users to interact more with the people around them, without having to resort to turning up the volume. Think about it: what if smart hearing aids could contextually alter the volume for the user depending on the noise levels around the user? The FDA has already demarcated certain earbuds to be sold as legal hearing aids, so the potential is strong in this space.

THE FUTURE

Hearables have the potential to be not just entertainment centric devices, or ideal smartphone companions, but they can also be powerful activity trackers and health-focused wearables. Critical mass adoption would depend on OEMs restructuring their strategies to include more features for hearables, as was done with fitness trackers and smart watches during their nascent stages.

Source: Nick Hunn

When it comes to market statistics, things look promising. According to a report by Nick Hunn on the future of hearables, most of the hearable product OEMs have raised more than their target amount, which points to a strong consumer interest.

When it comes to the future, things are even more promising. Here’s a graph from the same report.

Source: Nick Hunn

All this being said, one thing needs to be kept in mind: small OEMs can only do so much. With Google and Apple making headways in this sector, along with Samsung and Sony following suit, it won’t be long before smart technology shifts from the user’s wrist, to the user’s ears.