Sony recently announced 'Project Q', comprising the development of a hand-held PlayStation and corresponding high-end earbuds. The inclusion of earbuds initially seems surprising since headphones and earphones are amongst the most mature in the near hundred billion-dollar wearables market. However, with Apple's recent launch revitalizing interest in virtual and mixed reality headsets, IDTechEx proposes that increasing adoption of immersive consumer experiences is set to disrupt the hearables industry.
Gaming Is the "Killer App" for Immersive-Audio
Consumers have continued to demand greater audio experiences from their headphones and earphones. From true-wireless stereo to active noise cancellation, users today expect the audio content they consume to be enjoyable and practical to listen to while relaxing, commuting, working, and, crucially, gaming.
Gaming is a particularly good application for even more advanced audio features, for example, spatial audio. Spatial audio can recreate three-dimensional sonic experiences, making for more immersive simulations of attending a concert or inhabiting a virtual environment - imagine being able to locate a competitor on a virtual battlefield from the audio alone. Increased immersion is a crucial value proposition of virtual reality gaming; as a result, audio is set to play an increasingly important role.
Although many major manufacturers already include immersive audio functionality like spatial audio, console-specific earbuds packed with the latest features to enhance the gaming experience are still likely to attract platform-loyal customers. In other words, audio is an increasingly essential aspect of gaming. As such, earbuds are a natural extension of the existing hardware ecosystem of controllers and wearable technology on offer.
Competitive Edge on 'Lossless' Audio
As well as noise-canceling and spatial audio, buzz is growing around 'lossless' audio. The adage that the digitization of music takes away from the magic of analog sound (e.g., vinyl) is now argued as obsolete since 'lossless' compression preserves so much of the original data as to be indistinguishable. Yet, while Apple has released vast amounts of music content in a 'lossless' format, their flagship Airpods are not yet compatible. Sony, on the other hand, are promising compatibility with their PlayStation earbuds.
The jury is still out as to whether 'lossless' audio is an essential consumer experience or just of interest to discerning audiophiles. Regardless, to date, it has not been offered due to Bluetooth limitations, which, if overcome, represents a significant technological achievement. As a result, this functionality will offer a competitive advantage over other earbud manufacturers, with the gaming market an ideal target to find early adopters and create mass-market appeal.
Strategic Maneuvers for the Mixed Reality Market
Unlike the fully virtual reality market, the consumer mixed reality headset market is in its early stages. However, many still believe that in the not-so-distant future, we may loosen our dependence on smartphones and instead adopt augmented reality glasses, interacted with by wearables such as smart-watches but also ear-buds. As a result, there are trends in the hearable market resulting from players seeking to position themselves as 'mixed-reality ready'.
By creating a gaming hardware eco-system of VR headsets and earbuds, Sony and others are positioning themselves for the 'mixed-reality headset plus earbud' future. This would see them well placed to challenge Apple and Samsung with a complete hardware ecosystem.
Despite its maturity, technology innovation continues to drive growth in the hearables portion of the wearable technology market. Trends in the virtual and mixed reality market are the latest to influence this sector, and as a result, gaming is now proving disruptive in 2023. In the short term, releasing gaming-specific audio hardware is an essential strategy to maintain market share as demand grows for immersive features such as noise cancellation, spatial, and perhaps loss-less audio. However, the motivation behind the announcement of gaming-specific earbud technology now is likely to run deeper and represent the growing competition between consumer electronics giants like Sony and Apple to dominate the burgeoning virtual and mixed reality hardware market.
For more insights into the wearable technology market across multiple form factors, including wrist worn, earphones, AR and VR headsets, electronic skin patches, and more - see the comprehensive IDTechEx report, "Wearable Technology Forecasts 2023-2033".