Three Challenges For The Hearables Future

In Spike Jonze’s Her, Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with his earpiece — or rather, the female voice inside it. The film depicts a society in which artificially intelligent hearing devices serve as human companions.

A cliché for the hearables futureHer nonetheless raises several key issues regarding the increasingly saturated industry of ear-worn wearables that must be resolved — not only to prevent an isolated world in which people become increasingly obsessed with their trinkets but also to herald the advancement of hearable technologies that will perhaps even be capable of their own self-reflection and introspection.

Reshaping The Stigma

The lonely future portrayed in Her is exactly what hearable technology should not evolve into. Yet, it reinforces how people generally perceive these earpieces — isolating and potentially embarrassing. We’ve already seen (and joked about) them with early iterations of the Bluetooth headset — this clunky, protruding device gave an almost comical impression that one was talking to oneself. It also attempted to standardize hearable technology, an effort to combat the existing stigma of isolation and introversion exuded through headphones and earphones.

Bluetooth headsets introduced the world to the potential of hearables, but the stigma is still there and especially present in health devices, such as hearing aids. They give the impression that the user is immersed in their own world; they’re perceived as socially awkward.

Yet, instead of merely combatting the existing stigma, hearables companies should also aim to reshape it. Making devices less visible is a step in the right direction, but the challenge is to make them normative. To facilitate the transition to AI companions, they need to be socially accepted.

Hearables companies are currently developing products that aim to both supplement and augment hearing.

According to Maurizio Cibelli, co-founder and CEO of Italy-based Hutoma, a startup that is developing the technology to create emotionally intelligent neural network systems similar to that of Her, this is one of the biggest challenges. “There is a lot of discussion about AI, and people’s perceptions immediately turn negative when they hear the term — that’s a difficult thing to measure at the moment.”

One solution is to transform these earpieces into more of a social experience. Instead of tuning out from their environment, why not develop hearables that also tune-in to the world around them?

Products like Doppler Labs’ Here and Motorola’s Hint aim to curate live experiences by not only enhancing the sounds that people want to hear, but also isolating and reducing unwanted noises, such as train sounds and airplane turbulence. These features are amazing; they’re transformative.

In a previous interview with TechCrunch, Doppler Labs’ co-founder and CEO Noah Kraft says that he envisages a world where “every audio experience is perfect.”

It’s more than just making the technology outstanding; people should feel comfortable going out in public wearing these devices. “This is something you should wear proudly, not something you should hide or something [that makes you] feel socially stigmatized,” says Kraft.

Demographic Adoptability

With wristbands and fitness trackers, we often discuss the concept of “stickiness,” or the lack thereof; many users who buy these products stop using them after a few months. A survey conducted by Endeavour Partners found that 33 percent of U.S. consumers stop using the device after six months.

One goal of companies is to develop a product or service that will be used by consumers throughout the day for as long as possible. Certain devices, such as the iPhone and the iPad, have reached widespread adoptability and usability because they cater to all demographic groups; they are accessible and easy to use. Similarly with hearables, the devices should be intuitive, easy to learn and as unobtrusive to one’s lifestyle as possible, lest the technology becomes a temporary fad.

Some of the companies developing hearable technology are seeking to first cater to niche markets.

According to Dr. Steven LeBoeuf, co-founder and president of Valencell, a Raleigh-based company that develops biometric sensors for hearables, that’s an important thing to consider.

“What people care about is how you improve their lives,” says LeBoeuf. “The way mobile phones do that is very clear. The way fitness trackers [and hearables] do is not quite as clear and what needs to be done is find ways to integrate the experiences and how people are already living, because what people really want is to know what they can uniquely do — what’s uniquely happening with them to improve their lifestyles.”

To better understand public perceptions, some of the companies developing hearable technology are seeking to first cater to niche markets — enthusiasts, if you will — before phasing-in to the mass market.

“[Our product] would apply at the beginning to a niche, and that’s who we’re targeting. These are tech enthusiasts and it’s a perfect point for us because we want to grow organically,” says Cibelli. “It actually works pretty well for us if we can target those people first.”

Noah Kraft agrees. “The ideal customer to start isn’t even a customer; it’s someone who is deeply passionate about music that they’ve contacted us to be part of this waitlist — part of this beta program — where they go out into the world and really give us feedback about what they like and what they don’t… that is a niche demographic, but we have found that it’s a very passionate one.”

Technical Obstacles

The potential in this sector is almost limitless. In a few years, there may be wireless earbuds that can facilitate real-time language translation and use sensors to integrate biometric data to influence gaming. Companies like Elbee and Valencell are already trying to tackle these problems. They focus on using the ear to interact with other applications. With the Elbee, for example, users can tell their wireless earbuds to turn lights on and off, control temperature, send text messages and more — in addition to playing music.

Yet, there are some technicalities that need to be developed further, depending on the uses of the hearable.

Smaller And Smarter Sensors 

Earbuds that intend to measure vitals such as blood flow, calories burned and pulse prioritize the accuracy of their sensors. The challenge is to incorporate sensors that are not only validated and rigorously tested, but also small enough to fit comfortably within the ear.

The ear is already comparatively more advantageous than the wrist; it’s relatively stationary, which means that it’s a lot easier to measure vitals effectively. However, each ear has a unique shape. Unlike the wrist, it is also a small environment filled with moisture and earwax. Developers should take into account these factors when optimizing their devices.

“There’s a need to make sensors smarter. In making ‘true wireless earbuds,’ you have only so much real estate you can put into these devices … you start running out of space,” says LeBoeuf. “Now that people want to add more and more sensor functionality, the sensors are starting to become big. One of the things to do is to find ways of improving and reducing the size while adding more functionality into these sensors.”

In addition to accuracy, sensors need to be smart.

“Assessments need to be based off of real accurate data,” says LeBoeuf. “How does [the earpiece] know that it’s accurate? If it’s only getting data, then it wouldn’t know. One of the things that [Valencell] developed is a way to know if they have the right measurements or not so that if they aren’t right, they don’t go into the model.”

Battery Life

Current recreational wireless earbuds can last an average of 3-5 hours of continuous usage; hearing aids such as Eargo are able to last an entire day on one charge.

Minimizing processes to conserve battery life is one tenant, but it is also about longer battery life as a major determinant of whether or not people will wear the hearable. Ideally, the device should last as long as a smartphone, withstanding constant usage. While this obstacle is an issue for all wearables, it is especially important for hearables to transform them from simply a commodity to a necessity. Portable battery chargers are also a plus.

Choosing The Right Wireless Technology

Many wireless earbuds use Bluetooth, but some companies are attempting to utilize other wireless technologies for music streaming. HearNotes, for example, is using Kleer, an alternative to Bluetooth developed by Microchip Technology. According to HearNotes, Kleer is optimized to deliver lossless high-quality wireless audio across portable audio devices and consume less power, resulting in up to 10x the battery life of comparable Bluetooth devices.

Instead of merely combatting the existing stigma, hearables companies should also aim to reshape it.

The analysis draws upon comparing the current 150 milliwatt Bluetooth headsets with the 30 milliwatt consumption of Kleer devices. This discrepancy is further increased by Kleer’s ability to carry 3-4x the data rate.

One challenge for prototypes is providing clear communication between the left and right earbuds, as well as with the device itself. According to Elbee co-founder and CEO Konrad Holubek, the positioning of the antenna within the earbuds is crucial to ensure that your hearables device operates seamlessly.

Moving Forward

The future that Spike Jonze’s film envisioned is actually not too distant. There are companies that are developing deep learning neural networks that would transform your digital assistant from merely taking commands to a virtual companion that would help you learn and grow — an AI that is capable of thought.

Indeed, Hutoma’s Project HER (inspired by the film, of course) is developing the technology to do just that. They aim to develop a neural network that would provide the basic intelligence off of which potential users could build and customize.

According to Cibelli, technologies like this would further the potential of hearables. “I hope that hearables will adopt AI, because I think it’s pretty much needed,” says Cibelli. “There are so many benefits and applications.”

Hearables companies are currently developing products that aim to both supplement and augment hearing. The products come in all variations (in-ear, on-ear, around the ear). And while these companies all have the shared goal of engaging and expanding the ear’s advantages, they all have different ideas for how to do so.

As a result, it all comes down to the user experience that hearables provide.

“It’s easy to see these individual technologies all taking off and doing their cool stuff, and it’s interesting to connect the dots, but there’s a lot of validation to be done,” says LeBoeuf. “Testing the technology out with people will take time.”