Are hearables the next big thing in wearable technology? A slew of startups and tech companies think so and are planning to turn your ears into into new interfaces.
Human ears are weird looking things that represent a world of untapped computing opportunity, according to some startups. Hearables are tiny pieces of unobtrusive technology that fit in your ear, often interacting with your smartphone. These battery-powered devices have many potential applications, including:
- Superhuman hearing
- The muting of bothersome sounds (like crying babies and other background noises)
- Optimized, customized soundscapes to match your context or mood
- Augmented hearing at concerts and events
- Healthcare applications to measure heart rate, calories burned, etc
- Voice control for straight answers, sans mobile
Someday hearables might even be able to act as translators or serve as a discreet advisor that uses artificial intelligence to provide you with contextual insights and services that augment your life.
Hearables Market Landscape
Hearables are expected to be a $5 billion market by 2018. So far, only a few potential leaders have entered the hearables marketplace, including:
- Motorola recently released the Moto Hint, a simple $99 hearable that uses bluetooth to interface with your phone and take commands for Google voice search and perform other functions too
- Bragi, the German startup that raised funds via Kickstarter, is developing the Dash, a $299 hearable that stores and plays music, with or without a smartphone. It has 4 gigs of storage and is available for preorder at a cost of $299
- Doppler Labs is a startup that is designing hearables to enhance live music, enabling you to equalize, amp, or volume control musical performances in real time. You can even use it to suppress certain frequencies of sound (like crying babies). So far Doppler has raised $635,000 via Kickstarter, and an additional $17M in series B financing from top VC firms
In addition, Apple’s $3.2B purchase of Beats reportedly puts them into an advantageous position to build advanced hearable products. However, Apple has not announced any official hearables plans.
Challenges and Promises
To reach full market potential, hearables will need to continue to surmount key challenges around power and fit issues. Each human ear has a slightly different shape, creating a challenge for hearables manufacturers, who are using new gel materials and clever designs to achieve better fits.
In addition to fit problems, battery size and power drains are also a challenge. While the sensors, processors, and speakers in hearables can be shrunk down, hearable batteries, in comparison, are still rather large.
Future hearables are expected to have smaller batteries and consume less power. Today, the Doppler Labs hearable has an anticipated battery life of up to six hours (not very long) while the Motorola Hint has up to 17 hours of battery life.
Lastly, hearables need to become inexpensive. Today’s hearables – still in their infancy, really – carry rather hefty price tags considering their functionality. Future hearbles in the $49 price range with more apps might crack the market wide open and turn hearables into the new tech rage.
In the future, hearables may become a vital computing and communication interface. Since headphones and earbuds are already socially acceptable and commonplace, hearables don’t suffer from the kind of social shaming that Google Glass sometimes engendered. In addition, it makes sense to start moving biometrics from the wrist to the ear, where there is better biometric input for fitness and health sensors to pick up.
But to be really useful, hearables will need to be affordable, and they will probably need to run apps and services that are customized to a user’s needs. When that happens, wearers should be able to use hearables to subtlety digest information, navigate their surroundings, command interfaces and perhaps even lead healthier lives.