Sony's new hearable, the Xperia Ear, is enough to give hope to anyone who has been burned by disappointing in-ear devices. After only a few minutes with the thing, I knew I wanted to get my hands on one for testing even though the unreliable Moto Hint has been taking up space in my flat since I gave up on it, months ago.
Sony isn't actually doing anything radically new, compared to say Bragi or Doppler Labs. But its confidence that it is building a quality, reliable hearable product is enough to renew my optimism that one day, in the not too distant future, a virtual assistant will make my disorganised, verging on shambolic, lifestyle a calmer, more collected experience. And all I'll have to do is chat to it/him/her.
Sony's assistant is currently referred to as Voice Agent and there are big plans on the horizon, not least giving us the same experience on our wearables as via smart home concepts like the awesome Xperia Agent projector.
"This is the new home of Xperia. We consider this an Xperia, just like the smartphone, it's a different way to communicate and access information," Miho Klimcke, senior marketing manager at Sony Mobile told us at MWC 2016.
"Why not pick up the wearable? Why not in a different format? Why not use voice commands? We do believe there is an appetite for this. We hope to create new behaviours and this is one of them."
Sony knows earbuds
It might not have convinced the world that we need hi-res audio yet but Sony knows what it's doing when it comes to building headphones. And here's where it doesn't matter that Sony isn't the first company to build a Bluetooth headset/hearable hybrid. Because we won't know till the summer but it could have built the best.
As with the Moto Hint, proximity sensors inside the Xperia Ear know when it's in the charging case, when you've removed it and when it's touching your skin.
So if you're getting a call, it won't answer the call until the device is snug inside your ear. And if you're on a call in the car and then get home, removing the Ear from your, er, ear and slotting it back into the case automatically transfers it to your smartphone's speakerphone.
Then there's the sound quality. The Xperia hearable features two microphones, the first is larger and hidden underneath the LED on the outer surface of the device. When it is fitted in your ear, this is closer to your mouth. And this is prioritised over the second noise detecting microphone, on the top of the device. Noise cancelling is processed on the device itself and we're assured there will be no sound leakage, good to know when Sony's Voice Agent is reading your texts out to you.
"You can put everything in it but then it becomes too large to wear," said Klimcke. "We think we have found a fine balance. It's the best of Sony's sound technologies but it's wearable and very small."
Bundled in with the hearable will be a range of ear tips - one open fit as, because it's mono, some people prefer "a looser fit to make it balanced" and then small, medium and large for the tighter fit which is recommended to minimise background noise. There are also three different sized 'wings' (arc connectors) again to cater to everyone's ear shapes and sizes.
We're ready for voice - if it works
What's nice is that Sony has also done its best to make anyone who is a bit shy about using voice, feel comfortable using the Xperia Ear. When you take it out of the charger, it switches on and connects to Bluetooth automatically (it can also be paired via NFC). And, for instance, you don't need to bark "OK, Google" at it ten times a day - just click the hearable to activate voice commands.
There's no personalised command phrase because it doesn't need one. And it really is a satisfying click, not a tap that you have to wait to see if it registered or not as with the Moto.
The first time you place the Xperia Ear in your ear each day - even if it's 12 noon - you can set it up to brief you on the news, weather and schedule. And if you've been in a meeting, it can notify you of missed calls, messages and any other calendar appointments within the next hour. It's all built around a certain lifestyle - a busy one. Or, as I said earlier, a disorganised one.
A longpress - of two or three seconds - can also be set up in the companion app as a shortcut to call home, message a canned message to a particular contact or launch a music app.
The Xperia Ear uses Sony's own voice recognition software, which has been used before in the SmartBand Talk and Bluetooth speakers. When the Xperia Ear launches this summer, these products will get a software upgrade to enable new voice activated features including navigation via Google Maps and Wikipedia searches. Navigation will be conversational so you'll say "Take me to.." and Voice Agent will ask how you're travelling then immediately launch Google Maps directions without the need for you to say anything else.
Sony Mobile is also currently developing its SDK as Voice Agent is an open platform though there's no timeline for this just yet.
It's clear that accuracy is the dealbreaker for this kind of device, which incidentally doesn't have a confirmed price yet but we're expecting (hoping?) to launch for around $130. Sony wasn't allowing demos of the Xperia Agent's voice capabilities on its noisy MWC booth because it doesn't want to put early adopters off. Accuracy and context are key.
"You can ask for information when you need it but it also delivers information to you," said Klimcke. "That's the very unique intelligence that we want to bring with this device.
"Maybe information can find you rather than you always trying to find it," she said, "The connected home is important but it's not the only area we're looking at. It's a wider vision. All the devices would talk to each other, learn my preference, learn my behaviours, talking to this device in my ear or talking to the Agent at home. They should know me, that's our vision for IoT."
Your own personal Agent
Aside from a tease of new features coming to Voice Agent, we know that Sony is gauging interest in the range of coloured earbuds it is showing off at MWC. The hero model will be graphite black but we could see more customisation coming to the wearable once it has launched.
Even though it already has its Smart B-Trainer biometric headphones, there is still one eye on fitness capabilities for a very compact earbud like the Xperia Ear too.
"With this, because it's wearable, we can really focus on consumer's passion points," said Klimcke. "So like with the SmartWatch, if you're active and you do sports, maybe you need it to be fully waterproof, you need activity tracking, why not have more sensors inside? The possibility is huge and there are all kinds of different forms of the product we can bring to the market."
If and when Sony's Xperia Eye wearable camera concept and Xperia Projector make it to stores, these too might be voice controlled via Voice Agent. "People can feel more comfortable using voice commands at home, of course. And maybe that behaviour would eventually change how you act outside of the home."
Nevermind eventually, if Sony can build and launch the Xperia Ear as a virtual assistant device that works accurately and reliably even *most* of the time, we reckon it could have the first non-fitness hit hearable on its hands.