Hearables. It's a word that's quickly becoming part of the wearable vernacular. While major players like Fitbit, Jawbone and Apple have focused on smartening up the wrist, others are beginning to cast their eye at another area of the body.
In the past 12-18 months, we've seen Jabra's heart rate monitoring Sport Pulse headphones and the SMS BioSport headphones go on sale. Earlier this month at CES, Bragi finally managed to make its entirely wireless Dash headphones a reality, while Doppler Labs is letting you customise your listening experience at a gig or festival with its Here Active Listening Earbuds. Even Fossil-owned Misfit is getting in on the action with its activity and sleep tracking Specter headphones. And if recent speculation is to be believed, Apple is going to smarten up its iconic white EarPods in a very big way as well.
The ear is a physiological playground
So is it really a surprise that tech companies are now setting their sights on the ear? According to Andy Mathes, EVP of business development at United Sciences, it was only a matter of time. United Sciences specialises in 3D scanning and has wearable pioneer Thad Starner, who was a technical lead on Google Glass, as a brand ambassador. One of the biggest areas of the business is 3D scanning ears and it has licensed its technology to leading hearing aid manufacturers as well as working with audio brand Ultimate Ears to create custom in-ear monitors for musicians to use on stage. "The ear is a physiological playground," Mathes told Wareable. "I think the ear is the next spot for the wearable. It makes a lot of sense as there's a multi function aspect to it. You could be listening to your headphones on your commute but also be tracking your steps, monitoring heart rate and concentration levels."
If your Jabra Pulse headphones don't sit perfectly though, its heart rate readings are going to be inconsistent, just as smartwatches with optical heart rate monitor rely on a particular fit on the wrist. That's where United Sciences feels like it can make a difference. By mastering the process of 3D scanning inside of the ear, it believes it can create a custom fit hearable that works for everyone.
The tricky business of scanning ears
According to Mathes, the process of doing that has been a complicated process for some time. "The human ear is one of the hardest holes in the world to scan," he said. "Everyone is different. It's dark. There's ear wax and oil. We've had optical experts that thought scanning a hole of this small size was impossible."
But then United Sciences had a breakthrough. Well, one of its founders did. "What we do is digitise that process. We scan you ear in a minute per ear with our handheld mobile device. Once we have the dimensions of your ear, we can eliminate a lot of the steps to make it cheaper."
Now United Sciences wants a piece of the hearables market with its first custom fit device called eFit, which will be launching on Kickstarter very soon. "We really want to create this in-ear platform, a custom market that doesn't exist," said Mathes. "We're not going to be the manufacturer of headphones, we want companies to be able to create custom devices for their customers.
"We want to take this technology to the masses by putting our scanners in retail environments. So you could walk into a Verizon, AT&T or Apple Store and get your ears scanned. The beauty of it is, once we have you ear scan on file, you can go back and order any sort of in-ear devices whether it's regular headphones, hearing aids, ear protection for clay pigeon shooting, swimming, or car racing."
It's not just about a better fit
The benefits of a custom fit appear to go beyond wearing a device that won't budge. United Sciences also see this as an opportunity to show what else hearables are capable of. "We were in the wearables section at CES showing off this technology. These scans have enabled us to put sensors in your ear which pick up biomedical health data that have never before been thought achievable.
We can estimate your calorie intake from muscle chews for food items
"We can put the sensor in your ear every time for you. It's only going to work on you. Everything a wrist wearable can pick up, like blood oxygen levels, heart rate, a lot of that data is not reliable. With optical sensing from your wrist, there's a lot of limitations like motion artefacts which disturbs the data. This doesn't move in your ear. We can even pick up things like brainwaves. For sleep monitoring, we can tell you your REM stages and percentage REM during the night compared to a Fitbit or Apple Watch which uses an accelerometer and just shows you how much you've moved. It doesn't really tell you anything."
A custom fit hearable could even measure stress and concentration levels as well as if you are grinding your teeth. United Sciences is also looking to provide startups with the fit they need to provide automatic diet tracking.
"We can estimate your calorie intake from muscle chews for food items," explained Mathes. "Soup or cereal is a lot different than steak in terms of the profile and characteristics on a per chew basis. We're working with a bunch of multinational companies - Google, Microsoft, Philips, Intel - on some interesting use cases on the in-ear wearable industry."
When I ask Mathes about the state of play with hearables and his thoughts on some of the devices, his reaction is unsurprisingly enthusiastic.
"I think Bragi is an interesting company, we had some discussions with their CEO [Nikolaj Hviid]. It's a great product, I put it in my ear myself. He still has a generic device though. It's one size fits all. The problem is, he's going to be limited to the amount of sensors and data he can get reliably."
Kickstarting the hearable revolution
With its eFit Kickstarter campaign just a few weeks away from launch, here's what to expect. The custom fit Bluetooth earbuds will come in a range of sensor packages - health and fitness, travel, sleep and concentration - with a microphone, speaker and both iPhone and Android compatibility.
"We're working with a very big company with sleep monitoring through the ear," said Mathes. Then there's something based around fitness tracking, concentration levels and the traveller. So we can cover things like active noise cancellation, monitoring step count, distance, calories burned and great sound quality."
I'm curious as to whether Mathes believes, like I do, that fitness will drive the early adoption of hearables and he agrees. "I think there's a lot of different applications here. I think the early adopters are going to be the sports and fitness enthusiasts. It's going to be people who are more health conscious and want instant feedback of how they're tracking."
The emergence of 3D scanning can be seen across various industries, so with companies like Wiiv Wearables letting you scan your feet from your phone to create custom insoles, when will the same be said about the ear? "We definitely talk a lot about that. Can we create a device that can a consumer can buy? We're just not there yet. There's 20 million dollars worth of technology to create a scanner, in seven to eight years, that's moving 30 GB of data. Frankly we're not sure if that's even on the cards."
And so to the question of the cost of living a custom fit hearable dream. "We're going to be launching this Kickstarter and we're not sure yet if they'll be $250 or $350 and that doesn't mean that's what they will be at retail either.
"We were selling headphones at CES for $135 and earplugs for $120. We don't want to manufacture headphones ourselves, we do it so we can teach our partners like Ultimate Ears and Snugg how to better make these custom devices. On the hearable side, we just don't know because the industry doesn't exist yet."