Innovation in Sound

On smart listening, hearables and voice.

Earlier this year, I wrote a post about being bullish on audio, specifically about a new renaissance in podcast and audio consumption. Since then we’ve seen that trend continue and made an investment in Opinion, the ‘Medium for Podcasts’.

But I’m even more bullish on the wider opportunities for sound. We interact with sound in an increasing number of ways in our daily lives. And I believe that technical advances in our ability to capture, process, manipulate, analyse and share it, are opening up countless opportunities to innovate and build new businesses that previously weren’t possible. In this post I’ll try to capture some of the areas where I believe this is already starting to happen and I’d love to hear from you if you’re working in or around any of them.

Computational Sound

Many people are familiar with the concept of ‘computer vision’ — the theory behind artificial systems that extract information from images — and the many innovative ways in which it’s being applied. In a relatively short space of time we’ve gone from basic photography to digital imaging to 3D and virtual reality. Today’s cameras can capture a huge amount of image data and store it at an extremely low cost. When you add to that the ability to process it and apply machine learning to extract knowledge about it then things become pretty exciting .

But one area that’s less celebrated is so-called ‘computational sound’. As Bilal from Lux Capital writes, it’s one of “the next frontiers in the hardware+software+internet revolution”. He astutely points out:

there are amazing scientists and engineers innovating in the space…but what we need now is entrepreneurs to focus on the space and bring exciting companies to life.

Our ability to capture sound is increasing and we’re doing it more frequently. As well as advancements in microphone technology we’re now likely to see small microphones added to an expanding plethora of wearable and IoT devices. The Hello Sense sleep tracker that sits by my bed has a microphone in it. If I had an Airbnb, I’d probably buy a Point sound sensor. Several startups, such as Hooke Audio, are making it easier for us to capture binaural sound. Meanwhile, we have an expanding ability to cancel or reduce noise — and not just for sleep (see Hush), or festivals (see Dubs), but maybe for your next drone video.

Then there’s the whole field of reactive and immersive sound, for gaming and virtual reality. In music, teams are working on artificially intelligent music composition (see Jukedeck) as well as on automating parts of the post-production process (see Landr).

Hearables and Smart Listening

There has been a lot of hype around the market for smart wearable devices. The buzz continues with the Fitbit IPO and the recent launch of the Apple Watch. But whilst the battle is firmly on for the computing space around our wrists, I’m still surprised by how little attention there is around the battle for our ears.

Before joining Seedcamp, I became somewhat obsessed with what Nick Hunn described at the time as Hearables. My fascination started after meeting a smart product guy called Gianluca. He had been hard of hearing since birth and was unhappy with his hearing aids. He couldn’t understand why they weren’t cheaper, or smarter, or both. This lead me into 3 months of research into the space and we nearly started a company together on the belief that the hearing aid market (and the few big companies that dominate it) is ripe for disruption.

Over the last decade hearing aids, and the components that go into them, have gone through a steady process of miniaturisation, to the point of being barely noticeable. Meanwhile, new wireless and ultra-low power bluetooth standards mean you can suddenly pair these devices with an even smarter device, ie. your mobile phone. And all this extra functionality is becoming possible with less and less impact on battery life. In the end, we didn’t start the company, but I did come across a promising Berlin-based startup Mimi, that is innovating in this space and soon stumbled across many others.

But it’s not just in the hearing aid industry that there is room for huge disruption. I believe that a new consumer-orientated market for ‘smart listening’ and ‘augmented hearing’ will be established in the next 5 years. We’re already seeing signs of a nascent market and huge opportunity for 10x smarter headphones that augment and improve the hearing of those that don’t suffer from any hearing loss. It’s not only about bringing smart notifications and music to hearing aids, but also adding smart listening capabilities to normal headphones. Early validation has come through funded Kickstarter projects such as OwnPhones and the more recent fundraising from Doppler Lab’s ‘Here Active Listening’ (raised $17m) and Soundhawk (raised $11m).

More established headphone companies such as Jabra are talking up more and more ambitious projects and there are several new companies, including Bragi, reminding us that ears can measure elements of our health including heart rate, temperature, blood pressure and pulse oximetry. The ears can even provide a useful site for ECG measurement. The race for the next generation of ears is on!

Sound as UI

The final area that I want to touch on here is ‘sound as the new UI’, the idea that voice is becoming an increasingly important user interaction. It’s not a strikingly new concept, but it’s only just approaching mainstream reality and I believe we’re teetering on the edge of a much bigger wave. The concept has kept us tantalised in science fiction and film for decades now. We should communicate with machines naturally using voice and, in theory, they should talk back! But it’s hard to argue that voice recognition has truly come of age already.

This is down to several factors, from poor performance and unrealistic user expectations, to lack of killer use cases. Things change quickly though. Consumer technology is unquestionably now steering head-first in this direction. Most of us have used Siri or are at least aware of Google Now, even if we haven’t fully adopted it yet. The rumours are that voice will feature in the upcoming Apple TV launch (Sept ‘15). All of a sudden we’ll have improved performance and unlocked the right contexts in which we can actually fully harness the power of voice to fully support natural human interactions with our machines. In doing so we unleash a whole new range of possibilities and remove the friction to a whole new set of experiences.

Amazon certainly believes in it. The e-commerce giant’s latest project Echo suddenly brings persistent voice-powered computing directly into our homes. What’s interesting is that Amazon will offer their Echo voice tech to other startups and manufacturers who previously might not have considered it. In doing, so they’ve started a race to own the endpoints. When it comes to voice, their AVS (Alexa Voice Service) is the new AWS and they also recently announced their $100m Echo fund.

The Sound for Future Generations

I’ll certainly be watching with interest. There’s still a lot to do; better mic technology, cheaper components, improved sound recognition and more powerful AI layers in the cloud etc. Not to mention mass consumer acceptance. These aren’t small hurdles to overcome. However, we’re at the point where science fiction will start blurring into reality. If I indulge the naively optimistic, Her-watching, part of me, I’d like to think I’ll be explaining to future generations in my family what it was like to live in a world where we didn’t wear smart listening devices for most of our waking day, or couldn’t operate our machines simply using our voices. Stay tuned.

Get in touch or tweet me @haynes_dave if you’re an entrepreneur working on any sound related projects or would like to share your own thoughts or knowledge on any of the topics in this post.

Published in Startups, Wanderlust, and Life Hacking