Saturday 11 April 2015

Hearables: When Will They Appear in Your Ear?

Note: Guest post by Klas Johansson, @DisruptiveMT

What Is A Hearable?

The term "hearable" was introduced in April 2014 as a subclass of wearables related to hearing. The hearing industry has for decades been working on what we today call wearables. Miniature electronics, software driven technology and 3D printing out of impressions of individuals ear canals have been standard practice for decades within the largest manufacturers of hearing aids. Some attempts have been made to use that hearing aid knowledge and introduce consumer products for non-­hearing-impaired people. Examples are wireless custom made ear protectors, in-ear health monitors and Bluetooth headsets. These products have been very successful in niche segments such as very active hunters and audiophiles. No real product has been launched with the potential to attract a larger customer base, but this may change in the near future: The hearable market is expected to explode to $7.5 billion by the end of 2018.

Why Now?

One important trend to keep in mind is the fitness wave and the possibility to use a smartphone to do everything from listening to music to recording exercise data. To do both of these activities today, a person would need both a pair of headphones and a fitness band. But not with a pair of in-ear hearables: With only a Bluetooth connection they measure heart rate, calories burned, oxygen level, and steps taken, all while playing music wirelessly. Afterwards, the user can analyze her training data and vital statistics on her smartphone and even get voice feedback during training. One exemplary innovator in this space is the German company Bragi who has, with their product The Dash, also focused on the fitness segment of the hearables market.
Earin by Epickal

Traditionally, the big argument against Bluetooth hearables criticizes the devices’ size, design and battery capacity. No one wants ugly, clumsy products requiring constant charging. A lot of R&D dollars have been focused on limiting the battery usage of Bluetooth technology, and today there are already products in the marketplace that address the size issue. A Swedish start­up, Epickal, raised $1.7 Million and got preorders of about 8,000 units for their Earin product during a 40-day Kickstarter campaign last summer. Their main focus is a small,  wireless Bluetooth earbud with excellent sound quality. The dimension of these earbuds are only 14.5mm x  20mm with a rechargeable Li­-Ion Button Cell battery, as shown at right.

The Giants Are Moving

There are several more startups in the hearables space, but what are the real giants planning to do? One hint came in May 2014 when Apple bought Beats for $3.2 billion. A lot of speculation has followed that this acquisition will become Apple’s platform for entering the hearables market. Data from the hearables could be used in conjunction with other Apple products such as HealthKit and ResearchKit. Other giants have also expressed interest in this area; for example, Intel has partnered with the artist 50 Cent. When a cool product with nice design, good functionality, high ease of use, and high battery endurance is introduced it could be a real game changer. We can expect that the 6 largest manufacturers of hearing aids are following this field closely together with leaders such as Apple, Google, Samsung, Intel, Sony and HTC. Data from optical sensors in a hearable will be used to improve fitness while playing music and providing other auditory value at the same time. So: when will hearables appear in your ear?