When we spoke to Harman last year the audio heavyweight had just launched its first heart rate monitoring sports headphones with Under Armour and wasn't committing to joining the truly wireless earbuds party just yet. Fast forward a year and while on the surface it doesn't look much has changed in its hearable plans, there is one thing that's different.
Earlier this year Harman was snapped up for a reported $8 billion by Samsung. Despite the big money buyout, the company is still working with Under Armour as part of a three year partnership and has unveiled its first truly wireless earbuds alongside another pair of HR tracking 'phones.
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The latest, the JBL Reflect Fit, are a pair of behind-the-neck sports headphones that include a dedicate button letting you check in on your heart rate and will also play nice with a host of fitness apps. At , the Fit are one of the most affordable ways to monitor HR from the ears and as Jessica Garvey, vice president of headphones & wearables tells us, delivering that biometric tracking at an affordable price has been key to a more gradual push into the hearables space.
As far as taking tracking beyond heart rate, Garvey explained that this is something still being explored through the UA partnership. "It's been a great collaboration with Under Armour" she said. "It's a good relationship where we take care of the hardware and UA takes care of the fitness side of things. When we designed the heart rate monitor for instance, we used the data and sensor information that's loaded into MapMyRun and other services. With Under Armour, it's very much our intention to bring sensor technology into other flagship products, but we need to make sure they are rigorously tested before we do."
But let's talk about Samsung. To say that the buyout is a pretty big deal for Harman as a whole is an understatement, but it also could alter the path for its own connected ambitions. The Korean tech giant made its wearable tech intentions pretty clear at this year's IFA by unveiling the Samsung Gear Sport smartwatch, Gear Fit2 Pro fitness tracker and Gear IconX 2018 earbuds. So where does Harman fit in and does it have a part to play in Samsung's wearable and hearables plans?
There's no point putting the entire footprint on your ear
"Under Armour also has a relationship with Samsung as does Harman," Garvey told us, "and there's some stuff that we have in discussion that we'd say can unlock a very interesting connected wearable ecosystem among the three brands.
"I think there is the recipe of a great wearable ecosystem," she continued. "There is some combination where maybe the phone comes out, maybe it stays, maybe you use a wristband with earbuds. There's no point putting the entire footprint on your ear, there's other parts of the body that can help display information. Those kinds of things are probably 18 months out, but there are the right partners at the table to create a non-phone-centric experience."
Cutting the cord
The JBL Free (pictured above) represent the company's first move to deliver a pair of wireless earbuds. There are however no smarts on board here and have more in common with the Apple AirPods than they do the Bragi Dash Pro. That doesn't mean however they won't be in the future. The likes of Bragi, Samsung and Jabra were among the first to go truly wireless with smart connected features in tow and Garvey believes these smart buds are some of the most exciting things to happen in the wearable space. They're by no means easy to build and this appears to be one reason why Harman is not rushing to cram in fitness features just yet.
"It's a very simple idea but it is amazingly difficult from a technical and R&D perspective in terms of things like antenna performance for instance," Garvey explained. "We've had working prototypes for a few months, 12 in total and there's been a number of challenges. The modules change so fast. Every time you build a prototype, something changes or comes out that's better and we basically went through an eight-month period where that was happening.
"We've yet to see somebody outside of the AirPods that's really made a breakthrough in terms of offering new experiences. People are driving towards this new form factor, but it's important to balance how much you are trying to do in a limited user interface. So there are some competitors that have loaded up with the inner ear with tracking, but the question is, how much do I have to do with my phone in comparison to how much I can do just with my earbud?
We are a little more simplistic on the JBL side. We knew we weren't first to market, but we wanted to come out at a price point that would drive volume and with a simple user experience."
The thing about translating from the ear
Garvey may argue that we've yet to see any great breakthroughs in the hearable space but the likes of Bragi, Waverly Labs, Doppler Labs and Nuheara may beg to differ. We've already earbuds that augment audio or translate languages in real-time and the latter in particular is something that Garvey feels is an interesting direction for hearables as long as it's done right.
"The question is finding the right partner for the translation experiences," she said. "Ideally what you want to find is a database of machine learning that has a good accuracy rate. Then it's up to Harman to look at how it works. Does it make sense to have an earbud? Would you share two earbuds with a stranger?
"It's all about designing that experience of knowing when I'm listening to my translation or how do I know that you've heard all of my questions? A lot of the translation experiences are in-ear but I'd say that's there's actually another open experience. We have a few design concepts we are working on right now."
On the move assistance
Alexa, Bixby, Google Assistant, Cortana, Siri. 2017 has been the year of voice assistants offering us a helping hand largely from the home or from our smartphones. But there is clearly a place for them to live inside of our wearables as well. Something that Garvey agrees with but believes we need to solve one pretty major obstacle and that's dealing with power.
"I think there's a lot of opportunity with AI and voice assistants coming into simple regular microphone lapels," she told us. "We are a few years out but a problem we have to solve is trying to create a low battery drain voice assistant experience.
In the long term, Garvey sees the first step for any kind of "neckwear or wristband" as piggybacking off your phone: "But if you want to go directly to the cloud and access AI independent from the phone, the question is when does it make sense to cut this out of the process? That's definitely for the longer term. For the immediate term, you are looking at low-energy voice assistants to make sure it's always listening. With the combination of audio as well as display it's going to open the next level of the assistant experience."