The New Old Wearables

It’s not long since wearables were being heralded as the next big thing in technology after smartphones. Yet the hype, led by Google Glass and then smartwatches, has subsided as an old and unlikely winner has emerged in the wearable space — the earphone. The graveyard of wearables now includes the efforts of early leader Jawbone alongside Nike and Adidas. Market leader Fitbit suffers from serious drop off as people tire of step counters only slightly less quickly than they tire of diets.

The two largest companies in the world (Apple and Google) have big ambitions in wearables, with Apple emerging the winner so far — its Apple Watch is the only successful mainstream wearable and is estimated to have sold over 30 million to date. While Android Wear has failed to match Apple Watch, Google Glass 2.0 has eventually found a home in some industrial sectors and Google Jacquard has shown how technology can be woven into fabric, the most important wearable for Google is actually Pixel Buds.

Like Apple’s Airpods, Pixel Buds comes in the familiar shape of earphones. Not the earphones that came with your Sony Walkman back in the day (kids, ask your parents) — unlike earphones of old, these contain Google Assistant. As you walk along, listening to your music, a chime tells you of a new notification. Double-tap the right earbud and your notification is read out to you. Tap and hold to dictate a reply: easy interaction without having to remove your phone from your pocket. Command your smart home with a tap-and-hold to “Turn on Living Room lights” and the Google Assistant obeys. The translate feature that dominated the headlines at the launch event is also here. Use the Google Translate on your Pixel phone and you can hear the translation in your ear, which has the uncanny ability to make it feel like you’re living in a science fiction movie.

The sleek Apple Airpods include a microprocessor to ensure they pair easily and sense whether they are in your ears or in their charging pod — that’s right, your earphones have a chip in them. They also enable you to summon Siri, Apple’s AI assistant, with a simple double tap.

Earphones have a tremendous advantage over other forms of wearables — we are already inclined to wear them for their primary purpose of listening to audio. They aren’t competing with incumbent devices — unlike smartwatches and Fitbits that must battle for consideration to displace thin, popular and attractive conventional timepieces that require no regular recharging. Smartwatches are definitely much more convenient than retrieving your phone from your bag or pocket in some situations, but if you’re walking along, even uncovering your watch to glance at a notification may not be convenient. The sheer familiarity of wearing earphones, and the unobtrusive personal nature of the information being delivered straight to your ears, is compelling.

And as more phones ditch the headphone jack, it’s a good time to consider bluetooth earphones, so you may as well consider smart ones. Even if the benefits of an assistant in your ears seems trivial, you’ll be surprised at how quickly it becomes second nature to talk to it, as it’s so much easier than picking up your phone to summon Siri or Google Assistant. I’d fully expect Amazon to be watching this space and pondering their own entry to the market to give the otherwise dominant Alexa a place in your ear. It would fit perfectly with their Amazon Music and Audible properties too.

So while less people are adding smarts to their wrists than expected, look out for the rise of smart earphones as the next big way of interacting with technology.