Hearables: the coach in your ear

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Smart headphones look like being the next big thing. Whether it’s headphones or a hearing aid, in the near future they’ll replace the fitness coach, interpreter and even the doctor.

To date, earbuds have often been little more than annoying appendages for smartphones. Even the Bluetooth versions haven’t really done much to improve the situation. But it looks like these days are coming to an end. If the analysts at Gartner are right, hearables will even supplant smartphones and wearables in many areas. In terms of sales, around 115 million smartwatches are expected to be sold in 2022 compared to 153 million hearables. Apple Air Pods, Samsung’s IconX and other such products will soon make up 30 percent of the wearables market. Who could have imagined that just a few years ago?

And the projected domination of the market by “ear plugs” will have precious little to do with what they were originally intended for. For sure, they still transmit all kinds of sounds, muffle outside noise or, more recently, even adjust to the wearer’s individual frequency profile. The new in-ear devices are jam-packed with microcontrollers and sensors, have access to cloud AIs and virtual voice assistants, and uniquely bring the concept of zero touch to life. And the dream of using the computer without a screen, touchpad, mouse or keyboard comes true. Everything’s done via voice control.

Start-ups love hearables

One of the pioneers of the hearable boom is the Munich-based start-up Bragi. With its Dash Pro the company shows just how much music there is in a set of Bluetooth earphones. As a fitness tracker, it monitors the heart rate, steps and breathing rate, and calculates distances, speeds and calories burned without any help from a smartphone. The four gigabytes of memory can store up to 1,000 songs. Working with the “iTranslate” app, the device turns into an in-ear interpreter. It can also communicate with Siri, Google Now and Alexa, for direct access, for example, to the Amazon Music Library or TuneIn Radio.

Real-time translation services via the cloud and smartphone app are also offered by “Pilot” from New York start-up Waverly Labs or Google’s “Pixel Buds”, among others. By contrast, the “Vi” earphones from LifeBEAM – a manufacturer of helmets that measure the vital signs of fighter pilots – are all about fitness coaching with the aid of artificial intelligence. The miniature devices are equipped with an acceleration meter, gyrocompass, barometer and heart rate sensor. After a few hours of training, the “little man in the ear” will start coaching on the basis of the collected data. Unlike conventional trackers, users receive improvement suggestions about step length or running speed, for example, during the workout.

“Serious” hearables

Just like wearables, the development of medical products follows consumer hype. It all starts here as well with the monitoring of vital signs like pulse rate, heart rate variability, body temperature and oxygen saturation through a combination of different sensors. Optical pulse rate measurement via LED in the ear is much less prone to error than, for example, on the the wrist. The head moves less, there are no muscles or ligaments, and it’s dark in the ear canal.

Activity tracking and coaching can also act as the basis for a whole range of practical applications for sick people or seniors. Hearables fitted with inertial sensors can also be used as fall detectors. The AI-controlled hearing aid “Livio AI” from Starkey, for instance, sends a text message to an emergency contact if the wearer falls.

Unlike the lifestyle area, however, medicine has completely different requirements as far as reliability and data security are concerned. The latter, in particular, must be clarified when transmitting health-related information.






Hearables (Image: Harman Kardon).

Smarter workouts with the first ever AI personal trainer that uses real time tracking to deliver constant optimization of sport activities. (Image: Harman Kardon).