The market for wearable technology to date has been primarily focused on the wrist, but now seems ready to migrate to the ear. Hearables, or wearable technology worn in the ear, hold the potential to become a dominant category in the wearables market.
Hearables are not your father’s earphones, limited to taking calls and listening to music. "It’s more than just adding variations to existing headphones; it’s a minicomputer in your ear," is how David Cannington, co-founder of Nuheara, a manufacturer of intelligent hearing devices, describes hearables. "There are multiple microphones and speakers, three boards, three microprocessors, antennas, touch controls to let the consumer orchestrate their hearing experience, a little bit of wiring, and batteries that take up a big chunk of the real estate," Cannington says, describing Nuheara’s IQbuds, the company’s entry into the hearables market, which will ship at the end of this year. "It is a sophisticated electronic technology with audio-digital signal processing embedded in a small form factor that sits in your ear."
Headphones are already one of the most ubiquitous and common wearable technologies, which sales projected to top $2.5 billion in the U.S. this year, according to the Consumer Technology Association. Embedding fitness tracking capabilities into headsets—such as the ability to count steps and calories—is about as sophisticated as such products have evolved, so far. A new generation of hearable devices coming on the market goes beyond fitness trackers and have the capacity to capture vital signs—including temperature, pulse, blood pressure, and heart rate—in an unobtrusive way.
Beyond health monitoring, hearables have an added advantage over other wearable products such as smart watches, wristbands, smart clothing, and smart jewelry, in that voice technology is already baked in, providing access to voice-enabled apps on smartphones.
"We firmly believe the ear has distinct advantages over the wrist," says Nuheara’s Cannington.
Valencell bills itself as "the pulse of the wearable world," and its biometric sensing technology has been licensed to LG Electronics, Sony, Jabra, SMS Audio, and iRiver for earbuds, and to Atlas Wearables and Schosch Industries for wrist-worn wearables. "Valencell powers the wearable world; we don’t manufacture consumer products. We license technology and also provide sensor solutions," says co-founder and president Steven LeBoeuf. Valencell takes the "Intel Inside" approach and is not trying to compete with consumer brands, he says, but rather is trying to enable them with accurate biometric sensing technology.
"We wanted a way to measure what is going on in people’s bodies as they live different aspects of their everyday lives with devices they already wear," says LeBoeuf. "We saw the best way to do that was through the ear, as it is one of the best ways to measure a number of metrics. There isn’t as much motion artifact as other devices that are worn on the body may have, and on the ear, those measurements are going to be very accurate."
So far, the Achilles’ heel in wearables has been the fatigue factor. Research shows about a third of users stop utilizing health and fitness wearables after six months, while about half stop using them after a year. "The in-ear form factor is a big plus to help overcome user fatigue when it comes to fitness trackers," says LeBoeuf. "It is the Valley of Death in the user experience. When you first get a new device, there is lots of enthusiasm and excitement, but it wears off rapidly."
He says one of the weaknesses of the in-ear form factor is also a strength, in that "people typically don’t wear ear buds all day long, so the ear isn’t the best place for 24/7 monitoring. The reality is that most people don’t need to monitor 24/7 in order to track their health over the long term." What is really needed, he says, "is a consistent way to get regular health data, maybe a couple of times a week or a few times a month, and gather it as people normally wear devices and then look at it over the long term, say over the course of a year. The ear lends itself very well towards this, because if I am going to the gym and I forget my fitness-tracking strap or wristband, I’m going to keep going to the gym. But if I forget my headphones, I will almost certainly go back and get them."
Most of the major tech companies reportedly are working on some type of hearable technology. Samsung, Apple, Microsoft, and Google are all rumored to have hearable products in development for 2016. In addition, there has recently been a flurry of new hearable product introductions, including Here Active Listening from Doppler Labs, and the Bragi Dash.
"In the last year and a half, a lot of companies have become extremely interested in the ear," says LeBoeuf. "I don’t want to be negative about the other form factors because we license for those as well, but the whole marketplace is investing a lot more in biometric ear-worn devices. I would estimate hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on research and development for biometric hearables, based off our licensees alone, which are over 90% of the biometric hearables space. So, this is something that is going to happen."
"The ear will be the predominant control mechanism to connect to digital devices instead of touching, feeling, or seeing," Nuheara’s Cannington suggests. "In five years, people wearing wired headphones will be the minority; you’ll see people with more sophisticated earbuds in their ears. "
In fact, if smartphone manufacturers start including hearable earsets with their smartphones, growth could be exponential. "The ear, right now, is where the wrist was in 2013," says LeBoeuf. "At that time, no wrist products had launched that had biometric tracking; they were just activity trackers. I think that is where the ear is in 2016, and you’ll see a similar growth trajectory for the ear as you had for the wrist. However, if phone manufacturers bundle biometric headphones in with their smartphones, then growth will be explosive because hundreds of millions of phones would be sold with biometric earphones."
LeBoeuf suggests hearable applications are going to be "stickier" than those for other form-factors, because they will be more aligned with how people already use headphones. "Almost everyone has used a headphone, but only about 100 million people or so have ever used a wrist-worn tracker, so there is a lot more opportunity in the ear than the market may appreciate—especially when you combine biometrics sensing with the audio experience and UX experience. When you can improve someone’s user experience with biometrics in an audible way, that is where the two become so tightly ingrained it is hard to separate them."
Cannington conveys Nuheara’s positioning as a lifestyle product, bordering on a wellness product. "We are all about helping people hear better and take control of the world around them, as opposed to providing biometric solutions."
Being able to communicate in noisy environments is one of Nuheara’s primary goals, Cannington says. "What we do in our audio digital signal processing is to separate speech from background noise, which is really difficult to do," which makes the market for hearing aids ripe for disruption. "It is a real problem for the 50 million people in the United States that have some degree of hearing loss, or struggle to hear, and 9 out of 10 people don’t want to wear a hearing aid."
While hearables will not replace hearing aids (which must be submitted for approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration), they will appeal to a certain demographic that would prefer to spend a couple of hundred dollars to improve their hearing, rather than thousands of dollars on hearing aids. As an added benefit, hearables are more discreet, and so do not carry any of the social stigma sometimes associated with hearing aids.
The combination of these elements makes hearables a winning proposition. "You can control how loud you hear the world. You can turn down the volume, or turn it off, or you can find a nice balance between the world and the music you’re listening to, or the world and the phone call you’re making. Having that flexibility and that balance between the physical and the digital world is very much a part of how we are building IQ Buds," says Cannington.
LeBoeuf concludes, "In the short term, companies wanting to bundle hearable solutions with mobile devices could dwarf other wearable form factors overnight. In the long term, the ear will ultimately be the stickier application for health monitoring over other form factors."
John Delaney is a freelance technology writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y.