Imagine a near-invisible, in-ear wireless device that combines hi-fi listening, sensor-driven health and fitness monitoring, hands-free phone calling and user-customizable hearing enhancement into a single package no larger than a peanut. That far-off vision started coming into focus at last week’s International CES show, where wireless headphone makers gave a peak into the future of “hearables,” a new class of in-ear Internet-connected consumer products that one forecaster says will be a $17 billion global market by 2020.
This year’s products failed to achieve the ultimate vision of a completely integrated multi-function communication device hidden entirely within the ear. Rather, they focused in varying degrees on one or more early applications, including wireless hi-fi, fitness tracking, and Bluetooth phone communication. And all them were a lot bigger than a peanut. But from the wireless communication, miniaturization and sensor technologies on display at this year’s CES, it should only be a hop, skip and a jump to a new generation of in-ear hearing enhancement, communication and monitoring devices that will make even the most sophisticated of today’s hearing aids and other in-ear wearables look positively archaic.
The biggest splash came from the new Bragi Dash wireless headphones, which won the CES 2015 Best of Innovation Award in the Headphones Product Category. The crowdsource-funded product (a Kickstarter campaign raised more than $3 million for its development) was unveiled at CES and will be available this spring. It features Bluetooth Smart 4.0 transmission of hi-fidelity audio from smartphones and MP3 players, has a built-in bone-conduction microphone that enables two-way Bluetooth phone calls, monitors heartbeat and blood saturation levels with infrared sensors, and monitors pace, steps, cadence and distance with an accelerometer, gyroscope and other motion sensors.
To control its various applications, the Bragi Dash will come with a smartphone app in addition to a slick finger-swipe control feature. Its noise-canceling feature, which virtually eliminates environmental background noise to hear music and phone calls clearly, can be turned off to allow normal environmental sound to pass through, so that the earpiece can be worn when the user needs normal hearing.
Other hot hearables had their day in the CES sun as well, including Motorola’s Hint Bluetooth earpiece, the FreeWavz wireless headphones, and the Rox wireless headsets featuring Dolby enhanced sound from the grand-daddy of the hearables field, Jabra. But CES 2015 wasn’t necessarily the Year of the Hearables so much as the year a new generation of in-ear products came into view on the horizon. To bring those new products home, the industry will have to continue working on some significant problems.
The most obvious is the same problem Bluetooth earpieces have always had — their size. Even with the slick design of the Bragi Dash, it’s still a much bigger object than many people will want to stick in their ears. Another factor that will delay the onslaught of hearables is power management. Bluetooth Smart, the lower power implementation of the communication standard, has made many applications possible that in the past would have simply required too large a battery and/or much-too-frequent recharging. But hearables for the most part still require more power than you can pack into a tiny, near-invisible in-ear device.
But those problems and others will be solved. The entire industry is hard at work on an ultra-low-power implementation of Bluetooth, and battery makers continue to make strides in longevity, power, and small form factors. And the rest of the consumer electronics industry is following the lead of the traditional hearing aid manufacturers, who have been successfully miniaturing high-quality components such as microphones, speakers, amplifiers and digital-signal-processor-based sound processing circuits for decades.
As a new generation of miniature components comes to market, you can expect to see today’s multifunction hearables shrinking into near-invisible pieces that will fit well within the ear canal. As they simultaneously shrink and gain more functionality and power, we will see a major consumer market emerge. And as the market demands even more of the kind of sound processing and miniaturization technologies where the hearing industry excels, you will see the hearing aid makers start to play a bigger role in the fast-emerging hearables market. How major will that market be? Consider this quote from a research report by Nick Hunn of WiFore Consulting:
By 2018 the hearable market will be worth over $7.5 billion, after which it will accelerate to over $17 billion in 2020, driven by the new generation of desirable hearing aids, making it the most significant Smart Wearable sector.
What do we do between now and then? We closely watch technology and product developments from three sectors: the wireless headphone makers, the leading-edge Bluetooth earpiece makers and, perhaps most importantly, the leading hearing aid makers.
Can’t wait to see what CES 2016 brings!