When Apple introduced the iPod in 2001, the actual product didn’t end up being the main attraction. The coolest part, the thing that transformed users from forgettable stranger to fashion guru, was the iconic white earbuds. They weren’t spectacularly different from any other earbuds or headphones on the market back then, but when you saw that white cord peeking out of someone’s pocket, you knew they were cool.

With the recent surge in headphone and earbud technology, from AirPods to smart headphones, it’s clear this market is heating up. As new manufacturers jump into the industry and capitalize on the momentum, the next trend on the horizon is hearables. Derived from wearables (products like Apple Watches and Fitbits), hearables could be an all-in-one, A.I.-powered solution to a host of consumer demands. Recent innovations suggest that this new iteration of headphones and earbuds could even replace many of the products we’re quickly adopting as part of our everyday lives.

The industry is experiencing a moment of rapid change that is historically unusual. In comparison to the devices they plug into, earbuds and headphones haven’t changed much since they were popularized with the Sony Walkman’s release in 1979. The sound quality has improved, of course, giving you the ability to hear every nuance and note of your favorite songs. Most headphones today include a microphone and volume button, allowing you to take phone calls and adjust your music easily. Many headphone producers have also moved to Bluetooth wireless—a response to customer demands to eliminate the tedious task of detangling wires.

Recent innovations have created a pivotal moment for the industry, one that could alter how we interact with all kinds of devices and technology.

Overall, though, the point is still to plug them in, turn them up, and construct a world of your own to a customized soundtrack. (The technology initially was designed for a very different purpose. Inventor Nathaniel Baldwin built the first over-the-ear headphones in his kitchen in 1910 and sold them to the U.S. Navy. The military used them to listen for enemy chatter in a war zone long before they became a new-age music-listening tool.)

Recent innovations, though, have created a pivotal moment for the industry, one that could alter how we interact with all kinds of devices and technology. Before we get into how hearables are on the verge of changing everything, it’s worth exploring some other recent developments.


Perhaps the most well-known earbuds in the world right now belong to Apple with its AirPods. Released in December 2016, AirPods are Apple’s newest iteration of cool. They’re completely wireless, pair up seamlessly with your iPhone, offer excellent audio quality, and work alongside Siri to respond to voice commands. Currently priced at $159, they also come with a charging pack that makes it easier to keep track of them.

Photo courtesy of Apple

Many people would be inclined to call Beats by Dr. Dre the top over-the-ear headphones due to the company’s high-profile partnerships with famous athletes like LeBron James, Serena Williams, and Tom Brady. However, according to TechRadar, the highest-quality headphones of 2018 were Sony’s WH-1000XM3 headphones. They offer superior sound quality and noise cancellation, are wireless up to 33 feet away from a connected device, last up to 30 hours between charges, and come with built-in Google Assistant support. Sony’s top-of-the-line headphones will cost you around $350.

Vinci’s smart headphones, which the company markets as hearables, operate independently of a smartphone or other device. They’ve generated some serious attention from investors and consumers. The company calls the headphones the “world’s first personal assistant in your ear.” Complete with voice control, over 15,000 skills from Amazon’s Alexa, and connectivity with wireless networks, these headphones aren’t as advanced as the technology we’ll refer to as “hearables” in a few years, but they’re still ahead of the game. They’re mainly intended for fitness-oriented consumers and offer all kinds of fitness tracking built into a sleek, lightweight, over-the-ear headphone that will run you around $200.

Vinci’s smart headphones operate completely independent of a smartphone and even feature a small touchscreen. Photo courtesy of Vinci

If you break down each of these products, the trends in headphone and earbud technology become clear. Consumers want great audio that drowns out the noise of the outside world. They want connectivity with their devices and digital personal assistants. They want something that is lightweight and attractive. And they don’t mind coughing up a couple hundred bucks to get the right pair.

The Rise of Hearables

Hearables have all the functionality of the high-tech headphones and earbuds mentioned before, plus more. They have the potential to be a hearing aid, include a personal digital assistant like Alexa or Siri, track health vitals, do real-time language translation, and suppress or augment specific noises. Eventually, hearables will be small to the point of being unnoticeable and potentially customized to your ear shape. They will work in conjunction with your smartphone, offering relevant information and reminders throughout the day, as well as responding to requests.

The idea behind hearables is to leverage all the devices we use every day and make them small enough to be packed into two earbuds, thereby reducing our dependence on all those products. The average consumer today is likely to have some combination of a smartphone, personal digital assistant, headphones, and wearable. Major technology companies like Apple, Amazon, and Google have reportedly identified the opportunity for hearables to enhance consumers’ overall technological experience.

According to Fast Company, an October 2016 pitch meeting featured all three power players. The pitch came from a small (now dissolved) startup called Doppler, which had an early version of hearables on display to investors. While Apple, Amazon, and Google didn’t end up acquiring Doppler, former Doppler employees told Fast Company that both Amazon and Google are exploring hearable technology. To fuel that speculation further, Bragi, one of the few companies selling hearables right now, has decided to shift its focus from selling hearables to licensing out its software—potentially to one of those power players.

The Bragi Dash Pro is one of the only consumer-ready hearables on the market, but the speculation is that they’re moving away from the product in order to focus on software. Photo courtesy of Bragi

Edward Cornish’s book, Futuring: The Exploration of the Future, identifies several “supertrends” applicable to the prospect of hearables taking us into a new age of connectivity. His first three supertrends—technological progress, economic growth, and improving health—all support the rise of hearables.

Technological progress is zipping along at a startling rate. Just look at the advancement of the cellphone from unassuming, indestructible flip phone to supercomputing tracking device. It’s feasible that headphone and earbud technology could follow that same trajectory, allowing for miniaturized supercomputers that fit in our ears.

A simple voice query could tell you your steps for the day, the nutritional info for the burger you’re about to take down, or the number of calories you’ve just burned at the gym.

Looking at Cornish’s next supertrend, economic growth, it’s no secret that giant tech players like Amazon and Google will continue to bow not only to consumer demands, but also stockholder demands. They want to see a profit, and that means these companies will continue to improve on existing products and infiltrate new fields and technologies to expand their market share. If one of these big players jumps into the hearables arena, don’t be surprised to see others follow suit.

It’s easy to see where hearables could fit into the third trend of improving health. Consumers are in control of their health more than ever before thanks to tracking devices like the Apple Watch and Fitbit, calorie-counting apps, and fitness plans and healthy meal plans all over the internet. If hearables take hold, a simple voice query could tell you your steps for the day, the nutritional info for the burger you’re about to eat, or the number of calories you’ve just burned at the gym.

Impacts on Media

Given the aforementioned supertrends, along with the involvement of some of the world’s leaders in technological development and artificial intelligence, another industry certain to be impacted is media. News websites, television stations, radio, music streaming services, movies, advertising, podcast networks, social media—all of it could be at the mercy of hearables in the near future.

Think of how smartphones, personal digital assistants, and wearables have affected media so far. Smartphones have forced media to become an on-the-go service. Voice search through personal digital assistants is on the rise, and the advertising market for voice search is projected to be $12 billion by 2023. ESPN has an Apple Watch app, which provides personalized content and updates for users’ favorite teams.

Hearables could disrupt the media world as companies scramble to produce audio content and partner with hearables manufacturers.

Picture this: You begin your day with a light run around your neighborhood. Your hearables, through A.I. and fitness monitoring, have determined that your best runs happen when you listen to the Rolling Stones first, then power through a few songs from Coldplay, and finish with Cardi B, all on your Spotify morning playlist.

You hop out of the shower after your run, put your hearables back in, and because you’ve got Amazon’s hearables, Alexa chimes in to ask if you’d like to listen to “Up First” from NPR like you always do.

On your drive into work, your hearables remind you about an important email you got late last night, suggesting that you tackle that first when you get into the office. They also remind you that it’s your sister’s birthday and offer to set a reminder for you to call her during your lunch break.

Oh, and Waze is in your ear telling you there’s been an accident on your normal route, so you’d better take a detour. You get to work, and one of your co-workers asks if you saw the game last night. You didn’t, but your hearables save you with a quick ESPN recap to tell you that the Packers won 24-21. Aaron Rodgers had another game-winning drive and threw three touchdown passes. “Aaron Rodgers is unstoppable!” you reply.

Making the consumer’s life easier is the entire point of this technology.

Another co-worker asks if you’ve watched Ozark on Netflix yet. You haven’t, but your hearables are connected to your Netflix account, so they go ahead and put Ozark at the top of your queue.

You get home from work and realize that you don’t have many ingredients to make dinner. Your hearables grab some recipes from Allrecipes.com, tossing out a few suggestions based on your limited food supply. They guide you through making your meal. You sit down to enjoy your meal and flip on Netflix.

Ozark is at the top of your queue. You start to watch, then your hearables tell you that through an exclusive partnership between Amazon and Netflix, you can watch Ozark with commentary from Jason Bateman. He explains how they shot different scenes and found the right actors for the show. Now you can really impress your co-worker.

As you get ready for bed, your hearables remind you that you’ve got a dentist appointment tomorrow. You make sure to brush really well. As you lay down, you start to toss and turn, thinking about all your responsibilities for the next day. Your hearables ask if you want Headspace to guide you through a sleep meditation routine. Within a few minutes, you’ve calmed down and are fast asleep. Thanks to your hearables, you’ll be able to wake up in the morning and monitor how well you slept, then start all over again.

End scene.

Now, look back at all the different companies mentioned in this scenario: Spotify, NPR, Waze, Netflix, ESPN, Allrecipes, Headspace. If companies can partner with the key players—Apple, Amazon, Google, and potentially Chinese conglomerate Tencent—there is incredible potential for both the companies and consumers. Making stimulating and relevant content, offering helpful advice at a moment’s notice, and generally making the consumer’s life easier is the entire point of this technology.

Media companies already producing high-performing audio content, such as the New York Times, NPR, and Barstool Sports, will be best positioned to take advantage of this innovation—especially since the percentage of “avid” podcast fans increased by 23 percent from 2016 to 2017.

As an illustration of how a media-headphone partnership might work, the aforementioned Vinci smart headphones come with a predownloaded Spotify app. All users have to do is plug in their information, and they’ve got their favorite music at their fingertips. With the recent rise in audio content, there’s opportunity for podcasts to jump in for partnerships as well.

Those already in the consumer headphone and earbud industry, such as Beats by Dre, Sony, Bose, and Dolby Laboratories, could license out the software that makes hearables “smart.” The issue with those companies, however, is connectivity with smartphones. With companies like Samsung, Apple, and Google dominating the American smartphone sphere, will a company like Bose have to pick one manufacturer over others? Will smartphone manufacturers stifle outside competition by only allowing, for example, Apple hearables to pair with Apple smartphones?

Larry Kramer’s book, C-Scape, offers up some excellent advice for the future of this industry and its relationship with media in the information age. If media can focus on four distinct forces, he says it can thrive as technology continues its rapid development. The four focuses are: consumers, content, curation, and convergence.

Respecting the power of consumers to create, shape, and seek out information is key for media. Will consumers look to increasingly “smart” headphones/earbuds? If the trend of voice search continues to surge through personal digital assistants, headphones and earbuds will likely become equipped with at least some of that capability.

The old adage says that content is king. There’s definitely debate surrounding that sentiment, but there’s no debate that media will have to adjust its content delivery to adapt to consumer habits in the new age. Can media companies capture their attention through audio, or will they simply be inundated with too many podcasts, talk shows, and options for music?

Challenges

All the talk and speculation about hearables is good and necessary, but this is a product still in a primitive stage. There’s no guarantee that hearables will catch on with consumers or be able to perform all the functions described above. Opposing forces also exist.

One way hearables might get stopped in their tracks is the strengthening movement against 24/7 connectivity. In the U.S., the average person spends nearly three hours per day on a smartphone. In a 2017 survey, 47 percent of respondents said they had tried to limit their cellphone usage at some point, with just 30 percent successfully curbing their usage. With those statistics in mind, how might consumers feel about a product that increases that connectivity? While hearables theoretically take you away from your smartphone, in reality they just augment your connection to it.

What about privacy concerns? Will your hearables be able to record or listen in on conversations?

Is society ready for a day where a majority of people interact with earbuds in? Generally speaking, most people would find it rude if you carried on a conversation with them while still wearing your earbuds. Would we be able to get past that? Someone with hearables might be using them to hear you more clearly or translate your language into their own, or they could just be nodding along while they jam to Ariana Grande’s next chart-topper.

Then, there’s the physical and technological hurdles that hearables pose. Will that much processing power be able to fit into a tiny earbud? Could some functionality get lost in the fray? Will companies actually be able to customize hearables for millions of different consumers? What if hearables manufacturers and media companies can’t find common ground?

The problem of voice activation also exists. Will your hearables be able to differentiate between your voice and someone else’s that could potentially trigger it into action? Will artificial intelligence and voice search be far enough along to actually be useful to consumers, or will it only frustrate them? What about privacy concerns? Will your hearables be able to record or listen in on conversations in order to serve up more personalized ad content? Remember, in the “day with hearables” scenario above, hearables were able to queue a show up on Netflix by someone merely asking if you’ve watched it.

These legal and ethical questions must be answered for hearables to hit their peak and provide the utility that consumers not only expect, but demand from their technology. If manufacturers can’t answer them, it’s likely that hearables may not be an all-in-one solution, but rather a fragmented offering of different functionalities.

Though there are significant barriers, there is also tons of potential for hearables to become a mainstream consumer product in the near future. When, and if, the Apples, Googles, and Amazons of the world decide hearables are a worthwhile venture, it’ll be game on.