First came trackers. They started the clock on the wearable tech revolution. Then came smartwatches, and especially LTE watches, that catapulted the basic functionality of trackers to a whole new level, making wearables an almost inextricable part of our daily lives. However, even with smartwatches, as multitasking as they are, there is a delivery gap: your watch can play your favorite podcast or take a call, but it would also require you to hold your wrist awkwardly to your ear. In fact, you might as well be holding a phone to your ear, undercutting some of the raison d’etre for the watch. Enter Bluetooth® earphones, the obvious answer to fill this gap. In the space of a few short years, these wireless headphones have gone from being a niche accessory for audiophiles to wide market acceptance. The incorporation of AI assistants such as Siri, Bixby, etc has given an added boost to their utility and their subsequent popularity, leading to a new category of wearables: hearables. Another reason for the rise of hearables: their lower cognitive load. While screens have significant advantages over sound in most scenarios, their obvious downside is that they hijack our attention. We are all well aware of the dangers of driving-while-texting: if your eyes, and therefore your attention, are on the screen, they are not on the road. Sound, in comparison, is much more multitasking-friendly. We can be immersed in a podcast or an audiobook or a phone conversation while working concurrently on an unrelated hands-on task, such as cooking or cleaning. Hearables thus provide a way of being connected, minus the screen. Perhaps they are more efficient as well given that, as per assorted studies, auditory processing can be a lot faster than visual processing.
While these factors seem compelling in and of themselves, there are a host of other advantages to hearables as well. So if we are to make the case for ear-based wearables, here are the main talking points:
- Hearables are hands-free. They are at your ear, and you can listen to them even when your hands are occupied.
- As already stated above, hearables are eyes-free. Our obsession with screens is responsible for a host of problems. Aside from being just plain dangerous (texting while driving), it can be socially isolating, it can keep you from being in the moment, and can even cause physical aches and pains such as text-neck. Thankfully, hearables are leading the way to the disappearing or at least the shrinking screen.
- Hearables are discreet in the sense that they can be used without any change of pace or distraction. In receiving mode, the wearer has to do nothing to hear a reminder or an alert whispered into his/her ear. Even when actively using a hearable, all one has to do really is speak a voice command.
- Hearables can be used for authentication based on otoacoustic emissions.
- Hearables are also well placed to measure pulse, temperature and heart rate. The position of the ear with respect to the heart stays constant unlike the wrist that can move around a fair bit. Also the ear has a strong blood flow. All of these factors make hearables the right wearables for monitoring vitals.
- The benefits of hearables as alternatives to traditional hearing aids are obvious. In fact the potential melding of the two devices is something that has garnered a lot of interest from health tech companies as well as consumer tech companies.
- With the rise of AI assistants, voice has become the new UI bringing with it new efficiencies. Why, for instance, would one want to drill down menus to find a song when one could just speak naturally and ask for it!
Without a doubt hearables are finding their voice in the wearable world thus opening up new possibilities for ambient computing in an ask-and-ye-shall-receive lifestyle.
Originally published at medium.com on March 26, 2018.