Smart Earphones Could Be the Dark Horse of Wearables

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Have you heard about the Moto Hint? Chances are, you haven’t. It’s a smart earbud from Motorola that fits into your ear, has Bluetooth connectivity, and allows you to take calls, perform web searches, hear notifications, and send messages. It is easy to make the connection to the movie Her, where Joaquin Phoenix’s character walks around with a smart earpiece that serves as his interface to an AI-based personal assistant called Samantha, with whom he ends up falling in love.

There are other devices like the Dash, which is a Bluetooth headset, fitness tracker, and heart rate monitor all rolled into one. The Dash was successfully funded on Kickstarter and is expecting to ship in January 2015. Intel, in collaboration with SMS Audio, has developed its own smart earbuds that track biometrics like heart rate and step counts. The ear seems like an ideal place to embed a wearable device, especially when running, as many people listen to music while running and, rather than have you look at a watch or smart glasses to see your biometrics, having them spoken into your ear provides useful information without breaking the flow of physical activity to access information.

With Apple’s acquisition of Beats, I can’t wait to see the innovation they could bring to earphones. Apple hasn’t revealed much about what it plans to do with its $3 billion purchase of Beats, but there is a clear opportunity to integrate their devices and software with Beats earphones. Apple has already built handoff functionality into iOS 8, allowing you to transfer a phone call, email, or text message from the iPhone to your Mac or iPad, or vice versa. The smart earphone would be just be another device added to the handoff list. I would be surprised if Apple isn’t already thinking along similar lines.

This all leads to the one of the primary motivations for people to use wearables, which is to reduce the number of times you access your smartphone for doing basic tasks like taking calls, sending and receiving messages, receiving notifications, etc. If you can transfer some of these tasks to a wearable device such as a smart watch or a smart earphone, it allows technology to blend more easily into our daily lives rather than creating breaks in the flow.

Earphones are possibly one of the most popular wearable technologies today, with a large majority of us unlikely to leave home without them. We use them while we carry on our daily lives as we walk down down the street, commute on the subway, at our workplace, and while we exercise. With earphones becoming an indispensable part of our digital lives, it only makes sense that they get smarter, have sensors embedded into them, and become sophisticated notification agents. Combined with powerful voice recognition, natural language processing, and machine learning software, the earphone could easily become Samantha from Her. Google Now, Apple’s Siri, or the new Amazon Echo are pushing the boundaries around voice-enabled AI. It’s amazing how Google Now on my Nexus 5 has learned to pick up my Indian accent and is now around 90-95% accurate in recognizing what I say.

The other advantage, and possibly the more interesting one, is that smart earphones, especially the wireless earbuds like Moto Hint or the Dash, are largely discreet and hidden away. If it’s too discreet, it could also lead to some awkward social situations, especially if you give it loud commands or are on a call. But the level of discreetness is something that designers and UI/UX experts can play with and find an optimal balance.

And then, you could have smart earphones like BitBite that are used for something completely different, like tracking your eating habits. My bet is that you will hear more about smart earphones in 2015, with more innovation in the design, hardware, software, and UI/UX features.

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