There was an air of inevitability about Bragi's decision to sell its Dash business, ultimately signalling the end of its foray into the world of wearables.
In recent meetings with the company, talk began to shift slightly away from its Dash smart earbuds to building its nanoAI platform. A platform that would make it easier and more affordable for other companies who build wearables, medical devices and even smart home devices to make their hardware smarter and more intelligent. And when a startup starts to talk about opening up its platform, alarm bells start to ring.
That was back in March 2018. In those same discussions Bragi told us there was still plenty of life in the Dash yet. It talked about a new walkie-talkie feature and making big improvements in audio quality. But then things went very quiet. We wondered what was going on with Bragi. Wareable readers started to ask the same things. Getting hold of the Bragi's in-ear computer from the company's own website proved very difficult too.
And now finally we know what has been going on. Just like Doppler Labs and its Here One buds, Bragi has admitted defeat and proved once again that making a truly smart device for the ears is incredibly hard to do. Unlike Doppler Labs, which disappeared in 2017, it felt like Bragi had the tools and the innovative ideas to stick around.
Bragi's journey started in 2012, but it came to the forefront as many hearable startups have done in recent years through crowdfunding. The Dash raised more than $200,000 on Kickstarter in a matter of days. But unlike a lot of campaigns, the team behind it was made up of individuals who'd cut their teeth in senior roles at big audio brands like Harman and AKG.
The sensor-packed in-ear computer promised to deliver crisp, clear sound, onboard audio storage, sports tracking on land and in the water – all without wires. When we finally got our hands on a pair of the first-gen Dash, it impressed us enough to name it our Hearable of the Year at the 2017 Wareable Tech Awards. The Dash wasn't perfect, but there was enough to get us excited. Then came The Dash Pro, adding real-time translation skills and a custom fit – and while it also didn't get a perfect score, it still stood above anything else out there.
Bragi then started to explore who else its earbuds could appeal to. It delved into the realms of hearing aids and sought to make a hearing aid-like device. That came the discovery that some Dash users were modifying the hearable for tinnitus relief. It announced Project Ears, a new health-based challenge to build custom audio technology that would help people with hearing impairments. It had already collaborated with hearing aid company Starkey Technologies for its custom fitted Dash Pro.
It was arguably the first device that sold us the idea of a hearable
New features continued to roll out via BragiOS software updates, enhancing gesture controls, adding better support for third-party apps like Apple Health and Google Fit and even introducing Alexa integration to bring the Amazon smart assistant into the ears before others started doing it.
Making hearables isn't easy
Bragi continued to innovate in the quest to make its in-ear computer smarter and more capable than anything else out there, but clearly this wasn't an easy thing to do. There are fundamental challenges that all hearable-makers have to overcome. For starters, you've got to pack a whole lot of tech into a very small place, whether that's cutting-edge sensors or simply having enough space for a decent-sized battery. Getting connectivity between buds without latency is another obstacle that companies bigger than Bragi are still grappling with. Oh yeah, and they have to be comfortable too.
Throw in all of Bragi's other ambitions and you could see there was a breaking point. Plenty of less ambitious wearable startups have passed by the wayside, and it's particularly disappointing to see that Bragi and its Dash have now joined that list. It was arguably the first device that sold us the idea of a hearable – something that truly went beyond a set of earbuds that could dish out audio without wires. The Dash did so much more than that.
While Apple's AirPods are not a hearable in the way we'd define a hearable – they piggyback off the iPhone for Siri support among other things – their emergence undoubtedly had an impact on Bragi's business. It announced its own audio-only The Headphone just days before the first generation AirPods. Apple's buds are now reported to be the best-selling true wireless earbuds worldwide. Go figure.
So with Bragi's dash out of the wearable world, who's left to ensure that hearables live up to the analyst forecasts and spearhead wearable growth for years to come? Apple has yet to make its AirPods truly smart, Sony made a hash of its hearable with the Xperia Ear Duo, and Samsung stripped back the smart features for its latest Galaxy Buds. Startup Nuheara and its augmented hearing buds remain one of the few standout examples, as Soul Electronics shows great promise with its fitness-focused approach to the space.
Bragi intends to help power other brand's hearable charge, but it looks like it's over to the big guns to decide whether true hearables are here for the long run. They'll ultimately shape what those hearables should look like – and how smart our ears become.