The ear has long been touted as an excellent place for technology to exist on the body. Over 5 years of gradually gaining momentum, the topic of "hearables" is finally being recognized more widely for the excellent opportunity which it presents, with technology companies from around the world all developing their product strategies for this key group of devices. IDTechEx is hosting Wearable USA, a conference and exhibition which includes many examples of companies developing the future of this exciting product type.
The story of hearables is closely entwined with that of wearables. Both trends were kick-started by the introduction of low energy radio communication introduced with Bluetooth 4.0. On the ear, the initial momentum came from wireless headphone players, first with on-ear wireless headsets, but even more critically with in-ear true wireless headphones such as Apple's AirPods and others.
However, as with wearables, "hearable" devices also outdate this period by many years. The best example of this is the multi-billion-dollar hearing aid industry. However, whilst these players have been making wireless ear-worn technology for decades, they are also key players in the innovation on the ear. Already an essential device platform for some of the 200 million people around the world with moderate to severe hearing loss, these products are now starting to adopt new features. A key speaker and exhibitor at the IDTechEx Show! is Starkey; as the leading US-based hearing aid manufacturer, they have a prominent part to play in this trend and will present their latest work and progress.
The introduction of biometrics on the ear has been a prominent theme beyond just the hearing aid. The ear is an excellent place to collect data about the body; there is a rich, shallow capillary bed for heart rate and blood flow related metrics, motion artefacts are minimised because the ear is the centre of balance in the body, there is close access to the brain and face for things such as facial movement or brainwave detection, and perhaps most prominently, close access to hearing and voice related metrics. Health metrics has been a huge part of the movement which has taken the smartwatch to great heights; many companies see the ear as a next and improved location for these product types. The IDTechEx Show! has presentations from pioneers such as Valencell and Aware, as well as many other relevant sensor and biometrics platforms presented throughout the conference and exhibition.
More recently, the discussion around AI has also become relevant for ear-worn devices. The particular definition of AI which is relevant in this case specifically refers to the use of voice based virtual digital assistants such as the likes of Apple's Siri, Amazon's Alexa, and competitive options from other players. Utilising both on board processing and the low power communication to smartphones and other devices, hearables have become a key part of the product ecosystem for these devices, as highlighted by recent announcements and product launches from many leading players in the space.
Finally, there has also been a strong link between hearables and themes around AR, VR, MR and spatial computing. Audio immersion can be just as important as visual immersion for these kind of environments, and new products from players such as Bose highlight this recent trend. Bose will also present their AR products at the IDTechEx Show! in the Wearable USA conference track.
Wearable USA is taking place on November 20-21 in Santa Clara, CA, as part of the IDTechEx Show! Its focus on innovation, particularly in the materials and processes behind making new types of wearable devices, aims to create a "catalytic" environment for decision makers, product designers and business developers to learn, network and help to grow this exciting industry area. For more information about the event, or to book tickets now, see the websites for Wearable USA and the IDTechEx Show!.
~Top image: Starkey Hearing Technologies