The future of hearables: From fitness trackers to always on assistants

Enhancing the tech we already wear is an opportunity too good to pass up
The future of hearables

It's not going to catch on, humans wearing technology. The idea of anyone but baby Snapchatters and Taylor Swifters putting a gadget on their person, plugging themselves in, wearing it everyday as a fashion accessory, is just not going to catch on.

If that's your thinking then you won't approve of Nathaniel Baldwin who was tinkering away on wearable listening equipment for the US Navy in 1910. Or John C. Koss who was flogging his Koss SP3s, aiming to "enclose" audiophiles in music, way back in 1958.

Because yes, thanks to Baldwin, Koss and other pioneers in the history of the humble headphones, the idea has already caught on. Sticking technology in, on or around our ears is useful, comfortable, affordable and, perhaps most importantly in 2015, socially acceptable.

This opportunity, then, to infiltrate, enhance and connect devices which we already wear, devices which are subtle, private, even invisible to the unacquainted eye, is simply too good to pass up. Hearables are, well, here and - like it or not - you're already wearing them.

New tech, old styling

It's perhaps easier to begin with an anti-definition - an explanation of what hearables are not. We're not talking about a classic pair of on-ear or in-ear headphones or a Bluetooth headset, wired or wireless, that takes care of music and in some cases, phone calls. These are, instead, a starting point for something much more interesting.

Still, according to Gartner, 100 million Bluetooth headsets are sold every year. That's right Bluetooth headsets, otherwise known as the dorkiest piece of mobile tech ever (tied first place with Google Glass 1.0).

But compare that 100 million headsets to the sales of smartwatches so far - 1 million Pebbles here, 720,000 Android Wear watches there - and it's clear that unless the Apple Watch exceeds all forecasts, we're more interested in wearing tech in our ears than on our wrists, at least for now.

Nick Hunn, a 'wireless evangelist', CTO of consultancy WiFore and the author of widely read reports on the future of wearable tech, said in The Market for Smart Wearable Technology: "What makes hearables a very interesting sector is that they use new technology to enhance an existing experience. That's a powerful combination for a successful market.

"Lower power consumption does not just make hearables more effective for audio," he continued. "It also allows designers to add other capabilities. They're beginning to realise that the ear has potential beyond listening to music – it's an ideal site for measuring a variety of vital signs."

Hearables could even boost the image of wearables as a whole. Take the Bragi Dash, an example of a truly futuristic wearable device. It's a pair of wireless earbuds - connecting wirelessly to each other as well as your smartphone - that's waterproof, gesture controlled, stores music, tracks heart rate and fitness, acts as a Bluetooth headset and looks very, very cool.

That last bit is important as in-ears have two chances at survival in a crowded market - look stylish or sound amazing. And just to be clear, the Dash means you can leave your smartphone, sports watch, chest strap and sports headphones at home when you're out for a run or training at the gym.

The $299 Dash started life as a Kickstarter campaign and should ship to 16,000 backers in the first half of this year. Not quite 100 million but expect a rash of upgrades to existing wireless, sports in-ears by 2016 and at lower prices too.

Read this:The best sports headphones for hi-tech training

We've already tested the in-ear coaching abilities of the Jabra Sport Pulse and Intel and SMS Audio's BioSport. These early devices have competition in the form of the upcoming Parrot Zik Sport and Sony's prototype Smart B-Trainer which adds heart rate tracking to its existing wearable Walkman.

Some wearables forego the connected/hearable aspect in favour of pushing classic style such as the world's first smart earring, the fitness tracking Ear-o-Smart, but this is the exception not the rule. If it's in or around your ears, chances are it will be talking to you.

Why voice assistants aren't quite ready yet

The problem is we're in a bit of a Catch 22 with voice technology.

We know what we ultimately want - Samantha, J.A.R.V.I.S, the Babel Fish - and until it works perfectly we don't want to use it, we'll stick with prodding touchscreens. But until we start using it, it will never be perfect enough.

Hearables such as the imperfect but extremely promising Moto Hint, a kind of futuristic Bluetooth headset that pops in your ear and interacts with Google's voice and search assistant (and to a lesser extent Siri) via multiple mics, could break us out of this cycle of abandoning human-computer chats at the first sign of trouble.

Read this: Living with the Moto Hint - review

It's private, always on and useful - reading out texts hands-free when you're at home, taking voice commands when your phone is out of reach, playing podcasts - comfortable enough to wear for hours on end, just about affordable at $99 and on the verge of being a socially acceptable bit of tech to wear. It's noticeable in the ear but comes in a variety of finishes, doesn't stick out or around your face and will only get smaller in version 2.

Nuance's Chief Technology Officer Vlad Sejnoha has been working in speech recognition and text to voice tech for 20 years and is well versed in the potential for a Moto Hint-style device.

"When automated systems inject themselves into the conversation, they are obligated to behave in a humanlike way," he wrote, in response to Spike Jonze's vision, in the movie Her, of a future in which we pop a tiny earbud into our ear to chat to our own personal AI. "When a system does not meet this obligation, its interlocutors are likely to become frustrated, leading to a stilted and unnatural conversation. Such communication is likely to end in failure."

But there's hope. "Samantha's powers of perception in this respect are impressive: she is able to recognise Theodore's speech flawlessly," said Sejnoha. "While real world voice recognition is not yet up to Samantha's standards, her performance seems within reach: error rates are falling steadily by approximately 20% each year with no end in sight."

Letting software screw up

Tamar Yehoshua, Google's VP of product management for search and voice, agrees. "People try it out and they find something useful, maybe using the Knowledge Graph, so they try it out again," she said. "Natural language and accuracy are hugely important to that process."

Google Voice works with Moto's customisations on the Moto X and Moto Hint to allow any command phrase of your choosing - not just "OK Google" - as well as preset modes when you say Goodnight and Good morning to your hearable or smartphone.

This is most refined and personal version of the voice tech that's set to dominate wearables. It's already available in dozens of countries and supports 37 languages (plus dialects) around the world. It's a core part of the Android Wear and Google Glass experience.

But unlike Siri, Cortana or's ANeedA, this system doesn't have a name. Maybe if we're going to speak to it, it needs one. The Moto Hint and Moto X let you set your own, "Hey Penny Lane" works fine and Nuance is even experimenting with natural language conversations with in-game characters.

Until people realise it's right there in Google Search on desktop or as part of Search or Google Now on Android phones, researchers won't have the data they need. The end goal is to improve recognition, natural language processing and machine learning to the point where it's just perfect enough to meet our high human standards. The best thing you can do to speed that up? Be more patient with your smartwatch, earbud or smartphone and get chatting.

Conversation starter

The hardware for a hearable revolution is here - the sensors, the mics, the Bluetooth radios are all small enough to fit inside existing accessories. Beats headphones, sports in-ears and yes, bold new Bluetooth headsets.

In 2015, hearables are not only enclosing us in our workout music, they're coaching us to run slower to get back down to our cardio heart rate zone. What's next? Our AI assistant chatting in our ear about which emails s/he has decided to delete or else on standby as we walk through our front door, muttering commands for our whole smart home.

The tech is small enough and smart enough and let's face it, that 1910 styling is still fine for some situations. All we need now is for Google, Nuance or Microsoft to crack voice recognition for hearables to come into their own.

1 Comment

  • Extraneus says:

    A big issue with the problem of getting people to use these voice assistants is language. Not only are large parts of the world's inhabitants left without support for their native language, but even those of us who would be fine with just the English version are left out because tech companies are so US-centric, and for some reason can't fathom that the rest of us could use their voice assistant even though we're outside North America and yes, even without proper localization. So we're stuck reading articles day in, day out, about a functionality that's not available for us (and won't be for the foreseeable future) and the lamentation that people aren't embracing it in the necessary numbers. Well, duh...!

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