What more can we say about the year 2016 that has not already been said, or felt, by most people in the Western world? We have laughed, cried, and stood in shock as we have witnessed some of the greatest and most repulsive events of recent times. In the technology industry, 2016 will most likely be known as a transition year. Wearables are slowly, but surely, being introduced into the mainstream markets. The IoT world, combined with the upcoming upgrade to 5G, will revolutionize the way we view wearables. Of course, our focus here is on an even smaller category of such devices, the hearables. We have seen some great devices coming out this year so here is a summary of everything that happened.
Though wireless earbuds have existed for a long time, it wasn’t until The Dash by Bragi that we started thinking about the endless possibilities of the smart, wireless earbud. The Dash combine a music player, sports assistant, and a smart phone companion along with a host of additional features such as gesture control. Since they completed their Kickstarter campaign in 2014, Bragi have shown us that they are one of the very few Kickstarter companies to not only deliver on their initial promises but also continue to support their user base. By listening to the feedback and delivering major updates without touching the hardware, Bragi have legitimized the Dash as a pair of wireless earbuds with a very justified price tag, despite some limitations.
After the Dash entered the market and showed just how viable its device is, many other players have entered the game too. The Jabra Sport Pulse is an even better choice for sports enthusiasts, for instance. Apple’s own AirPods interact so well with Siri that they feel like a true extension of the iPhone. Samsung’s Gear IconX and Sony’s Xperia Ear are also very good products, particularly for diehard fans of the two companies, though the latter certainly wins out in features and quality. There are other companies which have also taken the Apple route by restricting hearables to their own devices, such as Motorola with the Hint+. My prediction is that we will see a lot more of these devices in the future, particularly when smart wireless earbuds will have become a staple of the market and dropped in price considerably.
JBL, in partnership with Under Armour, have also created a fantastic pair of wireless headphones which should strongly appeal to athletes and other individuals who’d appreciate some help with their fitness tracking. The same goes for the ELWN Fit earbuds, which are now available in the market. Even Oakley’s Radar Pace might be a good choice for those who wish to combine fitness tracking with an intelligent, standalone assistant in a pair of sunglasses/earbuds.
Bragi The Dash, photo: Vodafone Medien
A multitude of activities
Most of the earbuds that I have mentioned thus far are focused in one or two things: listening to music or fitness tracking. Those two activities seem to have the strongest demand in the hearables market. Users simply want their earbuds to be smarter, not to introduce features that would force them to change the way they use headphones. Products like the SMS Audio Biosport or the iRiverON earbuds have already demonstrated that the market also has space for budget earbuds. While these two may not have the feature set of the Dash, they are also incredibly cheaper. Entry-level consumers should certainly be aware that experiencing the true capabilities of hearables requires a hefty investment right now.
With all that said, there are certainly other areas that hearables have already turned to. Moreover, hearables are not restricted to headphones per se, as seen by both the aforementioned Radar Pace with its sunglasses/earbuds combination and the Huawei TalkBand B2, the fitness tracker/earpiece combo.
Perhaps the best example of this, however, are smart sound amplifiers. Here, I am not just talking about products like Sound World Solutions’ CS50, an expensive but ultimately fantastic amplifier which is more focused on aiding those with a level of hearing loss than anything else. I am also talking about devices like Soundhawk’s Smart Hearing Amplifier. As someone who frequently has trouble understanding people in crowded places, an inconspicuous hearable like that would truly help. Furthermore, I have always enjoyed watching TV in the ungodly hours of early morning, which means that either have to use wireless headphones or watch on silent. With such a device, however, sound can be amplified to completely normal levels without anyone else noticing the difference. Sadly, it appears that Soundhawk is in some trouble as the website is down and there have been no updates for quite some time.
The feature set of hearables is virtually unlimited. As we have seen from most devices I previously mentioned, there are numerous case uses where hearables can truly transform the way we approach audio. There are also several upcoming devices that cement that fact. The Pilot, for instance, promises to be the world’s first hearable dedicated to real-time translations. Despite some bold claims, the tech could certainly prove immensely interesting and useful provided that enough people take advantage of it. As another example, the Vi Fitness Coach wants to be the world’s first AI trainer, complete with accurate biometric readings and smarter suggestions than ever before.
Hearables in the workspace
ABI Research estimates that by 2021, hearable shipments will reach 1 million. In comparison, 2016 had about 30,000 of hearable shipments by October. These projections are certainly in line with those for the wearable market as a whole. In fact, I would even go so far as to say that 1 million might be low considering that these devices will continue to drop in price while adding even more features to the mix for even more dedicated markets.
Interestingly enough, ABI Research has proposed that hearables will be hugely important to the workplace. After all, smart audio devices can definitely enhance communications and make trivial tasks far easier, especially by way of digital assistance. Enterprise adoption of new technologies is nothing new as business professionals were amongst the first to embrace the concept of the smartphone. Whether this prediction will come true or not remains to be seen but it is obviously something to keep in mind.
Another report, this time by Research and Markets, indicated that the hearables market was going to be worth $7.6 billion by 2020, up from an estimated $130 million in 2015. Though that number might seem too high, it is worth remembering that the hearables market will more than likely disrupt other markets such as wireless headphones and even hearing aids.
Frog Design, one of the most influential design companies in the world, writes in their Tech Trends 2017 about hearables too. “Since the early 1980s, human computer interaction has primarily been facilitated through Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs). However, the combination of screen fatigue and technology embedded in everything from cars to homes, is exposing a need for new types of interfaces that extend beyond the visual. (…) 2017 will be the year of the AUI — the Audio User Interface. “
This year has been absolutely fantastic for hearable devices and I cannot wait to see what’s in store for 2017. Kickstarter has once again proven to be a highly controversial project with both big successes and disappointing failures and scams. Next year will be no different in this regard, I presume, though I would certainly like to see the market mature as soon as possible. In a few years down the line, we might even see 2016 as a hallmark year in the hearable revolution.
edited by Andrzej