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Hearables are answering the call of the wearables

By Brian S Hall / August 5, 2014


Hearables are answering the call of the wearables

True story: I am writing a science fiction tale, set in the future, where society is literally on the brink of conquering death, literally. Side note: in this fantastical world, people travel about, conduct their business, interact with their surroundings, and know everything they need to know exactly when they need to know it, via a sensor inside their ear placed there at birth.

With the way the tech industry is heading, that last part may not qualify as “science fiction” by the end of the decade. Ear wearables (aka hearables) are already on the market, promising to merge the physical and the aural with the technological.

Forget your Fitbit band. The single most iconic wearable of the computing age are … iPod earbuds.

Perhaps the much-rumored Apple “iWatch” will instead be an “iHear” device chock full of computing and sensors, monitoring our activities, our bodily functions, and vocally relaying critical information as needed? Like any good wearable, it will be connected to the cloud and to our smartphone.

Hearables are here

It’s admittedly not uncommon these days to spot someone sporting a wearable about their wrist. Even Apple’s Tim Cook has professed his fondness for the recently discontinued Nike FuelBand. But wearables are not just for the wrist, and perhaps not even best for the wrist. The Push has already showcased sensor-laden wearable tees, wearable onesies, eyewear, even wearable socks. Ears are the next, possibly best, frontier.

The fact is, we have a long history of inserting technology into our ears. Hearing aids, Bluetooth earpieces for phone calls, headphones, thermometers, cochlear implants; these are just the beginning. For example, there’s now a non-invasive glucose meter that clips to the ear measures blood sugar without a finger prick. Anyone who has or knows someone who has diabetes can already see the massive potential of wearables for the ear.

Another prototype wearable developed at Hiroshima City University which clips around the ear uses infrared waves to detect when the wearer opens and closes their mouth. The plan now is to develop apps for this tiny computing device, which could respond to facial movements and vocal commands and act upon them. Things like speaking turn-by-turn directions to your ear or casually reminding you the name and title of the person you are talking to are obvious examples.

On the more polished hearables front, there’s The Dash, a multi-modal fitness wearable which its maker bills as the “world’s first wireless smart in-ear headphone.” The prototype Dash includes a pair of Bluetooth earphones with 4GB storage that can hold up to 1,000 songs. However, it’s much more than an ear-sized music player. The Dash tracks movements, steps, distance, heart rate, calories and oxygen saturation. Not surprisingly, the Dash obliterated its Kickstarter goal.

The Dash is not alone. A company called Valencell makes several biometric sensor devices for the ear, as well as licenses their technology for other hardware manufacturers. Valencell’s iriverON is a $200 wearable device that fits around your neck with straps that wrap about your ears. This device tracks heart rate, distance, speed, calories burned, body temperature and respiration rate. Like the aforementioned Dash, it also plays music and can provide status updates through a pleasing voice: “Four miles to go. Try to pick up your pace!”

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A review of the device by Gizmodo was not favorable, although, most of the flaws they highlighted dealt with the complimentary apps and overall design, not the technology itself. The iriver device works through a process called photoplethysmography, or PPG, which shines an infrared light inside the wearer’s ear to measure blood flow, heart rate and other bodily responses.

A similar wearable is offered by Zinc Software. The Zen is a clip-on which fastens to your earlobe, much like a Jawbone headset. Zen monitors heart rate and other biometric data while its soothing voice input guides the wearer toward a more relaxed, meditative state.

The company plans to supplement its device with smartphone apps that analyze the wearer’s data to offer tips on stress reduction.

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Listen up, Bloomberg

Bloomberg estimates wearables in general will be a $30 billion market by 2018, and expects much of the market to be focused on the wrist, with the release of Android Wear and the looming rumors about an iWatch. Wearables for ears, however, are estimated to do no better than $2 billion. Bloomberg’s estimates seems to be understating the hearables market’s potential.

Unlike the wrist, the ear remains relatively stable while we move about. Product development suggests that in-ear devices are simply better at capturing biometric feedback than devices around our wrist, ankles or chest. Such devices also have the benefit of discretely ‘talking’ to us, offering notifications, directions, and status updates like heart rate.

Although watches can vibrate to get your attention, you still have to look down and maybe even reach for your phone. Not so with hearables. They can serve as discreet, personal companions that know your calendar, appointments, voice, location, and keep you informed without distracting others, the way Google Glass may, for example. As digital assistants like Siri, Google Now, and Cortana get better, it makes sense for these services to convey information directly into our ears.

Just as important, hearables offer the promise of a computer without an interface. There is no abstraction between you and the data you seek.

New worlds

A team of surgeons at USC recently implanted a hearing device onto the brainstem of a deaf boy, enabling his brain to hear sounds for the very first time. Such efforts point to the incredible opportunities for directing information straight through to our ears, while measuring and assessing critical bodily data. Yes, it may be a bit scary, but it’s also undeniably fascinating.

As sensors continue to get better and smaller, the potential for expanding our reality and heightening our senses becomes feasible. Take Neil Harbisson, a contemporary artist/cyborg activist who invented a hearable to battle colorblindness. Harbisson fashioned sensors and an antenna, which he straps about his head, to convert color waves into sound waves. Given the pace of sensor development, it’s easy to imagine a discrete, in-ear device that does this very same job. Soon, perhaps, we can “see” and “hear” layers of information that has always there, but can’t be discovered without technology.

Of course, there will be failures. Looxcie has long made a line of cameras that can stream video to others, much like a GoPro. However, their ear-mounted offering has yet to garner much popularity. The company is restructuring and may not offer such devices in the near future. Not every device is right for the ear, but the industry needs to understand that many are. Look not only to the wrist, but peer inside the ear during your next prototyping exercise.

Learn more about the future of wearables by reading our Helpful Wearables Trend Report.