While traditional wrist-adorned wearables started with the promise of bringing us closer to our quantified selves, in recent years, the wrist has, instead, served as an advertising billboard for fashion labels trying to break into the technology space.
Even with the glamour of brands like Hermès, Tag Heuer, Tory Burch and Jonathan Adler, research conducted by Endeavour Partners revealed that a third of Americans stop using their wearables within six months of owning a device, and half of all wearable users stop engaging with their devices in the long-term.
Essential reading: The best fashion tech from big name labels
So how do we convince people to continue using and engaging with wearables? According to Bragi, the company behind the Dash device, and Starkey, a leading manufacturer of custom-fitted hearing aids, the answer is with the ear. A number of theories exist about the cause of wearable fatigue, including the fact that people don't want to charge another device that's used in conjunction with, instead of in lieu of, a smartphone.
Hearables change the conversation from "want" to "need"
Through a new partnership, Starkey and Bragi reveal that we've been doing it all wrong with wearables. Rather than track health data on our wrists, Starkey and Bragi share a vision that the quantified self can best be measured through our ears.
"2016 is the year of hearables," proclaimed Satjiv Chahil, a marketing pioneer who joined Starkey as an innovations advisor. Chahil's impressive resume includes brands like Apple, Palm, HP, BMW, Sony and Beats by Dre, and his backing of Starkey's hearable vision could lead to another shakeup in the wearable space.
The ear is a more natural place to extract health and fitness data
"The ear is a more natural place to extract health and fitness data," Bragi founder Nikolaj Hviid explained.
The companies teaming up seems like a bold move, especially for a veteran like Starkey. The idea of combining new technologies found on wearables into a mature technology, like hearing aids, is interesting in that it promises to be a device that you'll always wear. For wearers of hearing aids, there is no wearable fatigue – there is a medical necessity to the device, unlike wrist-worn technology accessories.
This shifts the paradigm from want to need. Whereas users may want to own a smartwatch or fitness tracker, like those made by Jawbone, Fitbit or Garmin, a hearing aid is something that is needed by users. Charging a traditional wearable may seem like an optional thing to do every night – if you don't charge it, you'll still be able to function just fine. Conversely, with a hearable, if you need a hearing aid, you'll never want to skip a night without charging your device.
Must read list: Best fitness trackers of 2016
This means that when fitness and health tracking sensors get integrated into hearing aids, hearables won't, at least by this logic, suffer from the same wearable fatigue that have plagued smartwatches.
The challenge for Bragi, Starkey and their competitors is to integrate larger batteries and more sensors into future devices, while at the same time reducing the footprint of hearables.
Going beyond metrics
Marrying the Dash's unique features to mature hearing aid technologies, could expand the reach of "wearables" to a new audience. With one of three adults age 65 or older suffering from some degree of hearing loss, combining Dash's health tracking features into hearing aids will bring the benefits of wearables to an older population of users who may not have considered a health or fitness tracker previously.
In a video presentation, Starkey showed how the sensors inside Dash could be implemented inside hearing aids. Accelerometers inside a Dash-powered hearing aid could sense if a person falls. Because the hearing aid is paired to a smartphone, the device can trigger an automatic call to a doctor, caretaker or emergency personnel.
Essentially, the hearing aid acts like OnStar for your body. The hearing aid could also show emergency responders the wearer's health data. Even in simpler use cases, hearables can provide better quality of life for wearers. Patients with arthritis, for example, could dial a number without having to press any buttons. Health tracking can also be monitored in real-time, and doctors can get a better, more accurate reading of their patients' vitals.
The value that connectivity brings to the hearing aid makes Bragi's partnership with Starkey a disruptive force.
"Bragi's advanced integration of sensorics provides tremendous value to hearing aid consumers, while Starkey's invaluable knowledge of advanced audio processing and psychoacoustics expands Bragi's potential to enable people to utilize contextual computing audible interfaces," Hviid said in a statement.
These advanced technologies add value to hearing aids, which have long been considered expensive, single-function devices with starting prices around $400 well into the thousands. Starkey justifies the high costs of its hearing aid with the advanced audio tuning and custom fitting, but adding the Dash technology to the mix will help the world's ageing population live better lives. Caretakers and medical providers will also benefit, as Starkey's video demonstrated.
Essential reading: 50 wearable tech gamechangers for 2016
"We will share our technologies with each other," said Chris McCormick, senior vice president of Marketing and chief marketing officer at Starkey, of the partnership. McCormick revealed that as an early result of the partnership, Bragi will have access to Starkey's custom fitting technology so that future versions of Dash will come with custom earpieces. The Dash will initially ship with four generic ear adapters, depending on your ear canal, but Starkey's custom fittings used on current hearing aids could make the device even more comfortable to wear.
The future of hearables involves the brain, music and health
Beyond health and fitness tracking data, Hviid alluded to the future of the ear as a natural spot to track brain waves. EEG, or electro-encephalogram signals, measured on a future version of the Dash or Starkey hearing aid, could theoretically open the device to even more natural interactions.
Rather than swiping, tapping or nodding your head to command the Dash, the device could potentially respond to your thoughts, an excited Hviid explained, which is possible because of the ears' proximity to the brain. This unique position also means that hearables could be more accurate in measuring your body's activity than traditional wearables, including data like blood pressure, temperature, pulse, heart rate and more.
However, this integration may take some time, and Hviid can't predict if it will happen in the next year, or if it will take five years or longer.
Still, the possibilities for hearables are exciting. Not only can the humble hearing aid replace devices like a Jawbone UP and Plantronics' Bluetooth earphones, but it has the potential to understand its wearers better through more fluid, natural user interfaces.
For the older population who are already using hearing aids, hearables promise to bring health tracking integration to an audience that may not otherwise consider wearables. For the rest of us, integration of sensor-based technology into earphones seems natural.
Apple's Beats by Dre already demonstrated that the world is obsessed with music and headphones, and what better place to put health data than the devices that we wear when we exercise? Not only can the ear hear the beats of our music, but it can also provide valuable insight into the rhythm of our hearts.
Hearables are the future of wearables. They're smarter devices that you'll always wear that can track your well-being and understand you, while there is a medical purpose for hearing aids with users who require them.
Bragi isn't the only one exploring your ear canals. Sony recently unveiled its Xperia Ear, and there are rumors that Apple, Samsung, Microsoft and Google are developing their own smart in-ear wearables. With these big names throwing their hats into the ring, Starkey and Bragi may very well be onto something, proving this could be the year that hearables take off.