Hearables: Taking Voice Control Beyond Smart Speakers

28. September 2017.

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What’s better than being able to boss Alexa around at home? How about being able to boss her around everywhere else, too? It’s becoming possible with hearables — and no, that’s not a typo. Hearables may be the next big wearables if the voice activation trend continues the way it’s been going.

The world already has Bluetooth earpieces and wireless earbuds. Why not take it to the next level? That’s exactly what many big tech companies are now trying to do — admittedly with some mixed results, as is always the case in the early days of emerging technologies.

Others are taking the concept beyond the consumer level and putting it to work in healthcare and marketing. Here’s what’s happening now and next in the world of hearables.

In-Ear Hearables

Meet the Bragi Dash Pro. This self-styled “ear computer” is already on its second generation, as brand-name competitors like Samsung and Apple are only just starting to wet their toes in the idea of hearables.

In addition to playing music and accepting voice commands, Bragi’s earpieces double as fitness trackers and real-time translators. They’re controlled by presses, taps and gestures on or near the device as it sits inside the user’s ear.

The Bragi Dash and second generation Dash Pro work with any mobile device that supports Bluetooth Low Energy (BTLE 4.0), including Apple and Android devices — meaning it can leverage both Siri and the Google Assistant.

While reviewers say not all of the features work perfectly, they did praise its high-quality sound, long battery life and comfortable fit despite challenges with pairing, fitness tracking accuracy and over-complicated gestures.

In October, the Dash Pro is adding Amazon Alexa integration, enabling customers to leverage any of the voice assistant’s skills. Users will be able to place their Starbucks orders en route, hail an Uber and stream from any of Amazon’s audio services.

The forthcoming Alexa integration makes Bragi Dash one of the more exciting hearables to be watching right now, but Wareable points to some other retail brands also innovating in the in-ear space: Samsung, Jabra and Doppler Labs, to name a few.

Samsung’s generation one Gear IconX hearables cut the cord with wires, yet reportedly left a bit to be desired. They played music, took calls and tracked fitness, but the battery life was short, even considering that the earpieces could be charged on the go, simply by placing them in their case. Compatibility was another challenge, and reviewers weren’t wild about the audio quality — but, hey, it was a first generation product, so they still came away with high hopes.

Jabra loaded up its latest hearable, the Sport Elite, with tons of sports tracking features, including the ability to read the wearer’s heart rate through the ear. It also offers automatic rep counting and in-ear coaching to get users through the toughest parts of their workout routine.

However, Jabra, too, has its shortcomings. It can’t go swimming with you, and the earpieces don’t sit securely in the charging case, meaning they may get knocked loose during transport and fail to charge — and that’s an issue, since Jabra suffers from the same battery life issue plaguing most hearables on the market thus far, especially if it’s used for playing music and fitness tracking at the same time.

Doppler Labs’ Here Ones inspired the best review of the bunch from Wareable. The second generation noise-canceling smart earphones let users control how much ambient noise gets through and can even mostly drown out the noise of an airplane taking off. Like Bragi’s product, they integrate with Apple and Android devices to enable voice control with Siri and Google Now.

What makes these hearables unique is the precision control they give users to augment their auditory experience of the world — augmented reality (AR) for your ears. Via mobile app, users can add audio effects or simply filter out noise to help isolate a specific sound on which they want to focus.

Yet, like the others, the Here Ones struggle with battery life — even more so than the rest, in fact, due to the constant drain of running audio AR features (whereas music and fitness tracking may be used intermittently). Granted, reviewers were still able to squeeze three hours out of the earpieces if they turned off the AR, but even that is pretty short when you consider that a traditional pair of headphones never dies.

Out of Ear Hearables

What does that even mean? Doesn’t the device have to be in your ear to hear it? Not necessarily, as Vue smartglasses prove. Unlike previous iterations of smartglasses, the ones by Vue don’t have any kind of screen or visual filters — instead, they are really a hearable masquerading as a wearable, since all the interactivity is audio-based.

Who says glasses don’t make a good disguise?

The company’s co-founder believes glasses are a more familiar form than earpieces, with more than 60 percent of Americans wearing them for vision correction, and many adopting them just for style. The idea is that a familiar form will inspire greater adoption than the slightly alien-looking in-ear options.

Vue and other smartglasses with audio functions use bone conduction technology to bypass the eardrum and send audio straight through to the inner ear. The technology is still being polished before Vue starts shipping products, as currently, when the volume is turned all the way up, bystanders may be able to pick up some of the sound — although, at a typical volume, this is not an issue.

The advantage of the glasses is not only their appearance, but a slightly longer battery life: five hours of continuous audio, and three whole days if only the fitness tracking functions are being used. Plus, for those who hate the feeling of having something in their ear, this alternative creates an experience everyone has already had. Even if you don’t need a prescription, we’ve all worn sunglasses before.

Amazon is working on smartglasses of its own, which would use the same bone conduction audio technology to bring the retail giant’s voice assistant Alexa straight to customers’ ears.

How Does This Sound?

Over in Japan, healthcare providers are using a hearable by Fujitsu to help serve an increasing number of non-Japanese patients in the country’s hospitals. The primary function of the device is as a hands-free, real-time translator.

Could that be the beginning of a healthcare world supported by a network of smart speakers and virtual assistants? PYMNTS has written about voice command technology in healthcare before. With an in-ear piece like this, it may be possible for hospitals to skip the smart speaker phase altogether and start having doctors update records using these on-person devices instead.

Japan has also put these devices to use for guide services and marketing, using acoustic AR to give objects “voices” as consumers wearing hearables pass nearby. The technology is even able to generate a directional quality to the voices through sound localization, helping wearers identify the source.

Sure, it sounds cool, but will consumers really spend money on a device that puts retail ads right in their ears? There would have to be significant other benefits for most to even consider it.

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