We may bemoan a lack of innovation happening on the wrist right now, but it's a feast for the ears. The hearables space is gaining momentum and despite relatively few players in this area for the time being, all signs point to it accelerating at tremendous speed in the coming months and years.
Since the birth of the first headphones our ears have found a comfortable camaraderie with technology, but until recently this tech has rarely been "smart". Now, with miniaturization, new sensors, and better AI, there are exciting new possibilities for the things we're shoving into our ear canals.
As this exciting new market for ear computers from the likes of Bragi and Doppler Labs swells, the humble music headphones as we know them will certainly become smarter too, and I suspect it'll all meet somewhere in the middle. In 2016 Bluetooth headphone sales surpassed wired headphones in the US for the first time, Beats leading the way, which alone should tell you that people want to cut the cable. Over-ear Beats are one thing but it's with in-ear buds that the real excitement is happening. With that, and all the exciting leaps in technology, comes an opportunity to rethink what earphones can do when they're not tethered to our pockets.
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My colleague Husain recently pondered on whether Apple's ultimate hearable will be a combination of the Watch and AirPods. The AirPods aren't yet "smart" in the sense of the Bragi Dash or Here One, but if you think Apple's innovation will stop at music, you're nuts. For now, the AirPods are a gateway drug to the world of hearables, but I suspect we may see a refreshed model with new features as soon as this year.
Fitness tracking is an obvious start, and we've seen more heart rate tracking make its way into audio devices in the last year. Our ears are a great place for tracking vital signs, and better than the wrist for monitoring heart rate, and I expect we'll see more conventional earphone makers getting involved.
Another looming shake-up
There's another huge market on the verge of being seized by all these hearable companies: hearing aid wearers. An antiquated, multi-billion dollar industry is maybe just weeks away from being upended by the Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Act of 2017 which, if passed, will mean hearable companies can step into the space with more affordable alternatives to the prohibitively expensive aids sold today.
I recently went to have an earmold taken for the new Bragi Dash Pro, which required me to have my ears plugged with a Play-Doh like substance for a few minutes. Anyone who's had a hearing aid fitted will know the experience, but the most interesting part was when my audiologist started talking about hearing aid companies that are already trying to fit broader features like fitness tracking into the device. She expects the industry to soon shift significantly as conventional audio companies step in. When you think about how many people already wear hearing aids, there's a visibly huge market here.
In fact, speaking to me just a few days ago, Doppler Labs' Noah Kraft told me that the company estimates around one in three of its customers are buying its products for hearing health reasons. That's significant, and testimony to how lucrative this space could be for hearable companies. Bragi has interest too, having partnered with hearing aid manufacturer Starkey for its custom Dash Pro. "The Dash and the Dash Pro are very capable of being a basic hearing aid," Bragi CEO Nikolaj Hviid recently told me. "It's just a software update."
It's never looked more certain
When you think beyond fitness tracking and sound enhancement, there are still plenty of other features that will make hearables - in my view - the most compelling form of wearable technology.
Things like real-time translation. It's already something hearable companies are jumping on for obvious reason and it's damn cool. Of all the tricks Bragi's new Dash Pro earphones have to offer, it's the promise of real-time translation that got us most excited. As soon as Nikolaj Hviid told me this would be a feature, my mind started running with all the ways I could use it (no more unintentionally insulting people abroad!), but he talked of other implications I hadn't even thought of.
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"What you're seeing in Europe, there's a lot of people that come as refugees, they can't take a job," he told us. "They don't speak German, they might only speak French, and the guy who is hiring them might only speak German. So you can start hiring people who don't speak the same language as you do, and they can still integrate as they learn the language more and more."
Pilot's translating buds are set to ship this summer
For now, Bragi's translation tech relies on the third-party app iTranslate, and Doppler's Noah Kraft, responding to the Bragi news, said he wants to eventually offer a fully proprietary version: "If you take their translation they're just using a third-party app, and they're streaming it off the phone. And that's cool, don't get me wrong - it's innovative - but when we talk about translation, we talk about what happens when translation lives on the bud, what happens when a smart agent lives on the bud." Well, maybe ask Pilot about that one, as the company is currently beavering away on its own translation tech set to launch later this year.
While a lot of these ideas have mass appeal, we can expect hearable companies to diverge in their priorities a little too. Bragi's Nikolaj told me he wasn't interested in bringing Doppler-esque augmented audio to the Dash. "I think it's boring to be honest - I'm much more excited by interaction and how you can create a real computer in a headphone," he said. "Selective noise cancellation is great on a plane, but when do you really need it?"
Doppler, Bragi, Pilot et al are blazing a trail, but what will happen when traditional audio companies start getting smart about this? Because it can surely only be a matter of time until the passive earphones look quite outdated. We'll be interested to see which of these smaller pioneers survive, which get acquired down the line and which fade away having made their contribution. So far, they're steps ahead of attempts by Samsung and Sony. However it plays out, it feels like we're right on the brink of a hearables invasion, and you can bet your 3D TV this is one category of tech that's here to stay.