Apple’s new wireless earphones, AirPods, have received a lot of attention recently. Most of the noise about AirPods has been around Apple deciding to rid the latest iPhone 7 of the 3.5 mm audio jack, with the AirPods becoming a wireless alternative. However, in my opinion, the bigger story is that Apple has launched its second wearable device after the Apple Watch. Not only do AirPods come with wireless earphone capabilities, but they also include Siri compatibility. With a double tap, Siri can be activated, enabling smart voice-enabled virtual assistant capabilities in the earphones. Essentially, AirPods are smart earphones or hearable devices, something that Tractica labeled the dark horse of wearables back in 2014.
Hearables Market Shifts into High Gear
Clearly, Apple is not the first to launch a hearable device. Motorola (Hint) and Bragi are two early pioneers in this space, both supporting voice-enabled assistants in their earphones. However, Apple’s market entry gives hearables credibility and pushes the competition into higher gear. Personally, I feel Bragi offers the best solution available in today’s market, with support for a wider range of voice-enabled personal assistants, including Siri, Alexa, Google Now, and Cortana. I also prefer the discrete nature of Bragi’s design, compared to the elongated, “Bluetooth headset” look of Apple’s AirPods. The Bragi Dash comes with activity tracking built in, along with gesture recognition capabilities. Sony has announced its own hearable device, the Xperia Ear, which takes voice commands. Samsung also has its Gear IconX for sale in select markets. Tractica expects to see many more smartphone vendors and earphone vendors jump on the hearables bandwagon.
Today’s hearables are companion devices to the smartphone. The future, however, points to hearables that have built-in cellular connectivity, which does not necessarily have to be high-bandwidth 4G or 5G. The tradeoff is battery life. In the meantime, hearables could be an ideal companion to the smart watch. AirPods currently have built-in Apple Watch compatibility, but with the next iteration of the Apple Watch most likely having standalone 3G/4G connectivity, the Apple Watch and AirPod combination could be a compelling alternative to the smartphone, especially when you are out and about or exercising.
Seamless Blending of Wearables into Our Lives
In this wearable-centric future, the smart watch essentially becomes a health and fitness device, with the occasional notification reminder, while smart voice-enabled virtual assistants do the bulk of the heavy lifting from the smartphone, including voice calls, booking appointments, hailing Uber, or sending a text. This is the ultimate goal of wearables, allowing computing to naturally blend into our lives, rather than the other way around. Recent breakthroughs by Google DeepMind in human-like computerized speech, particularly text to speech (TTS), suggest that Samantha from the movie “Her” could become reality sooner than we expect.