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Challenges for the hearable future

Posted on 9/12/2015 by


The other day whilst watching the movie “Her” I realised that hearable technology is becoming a prominent member of mainstream technology and is not just a ‘thing of the distant future’. Her is the story of how Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with his earpiece — or rather, the female voice inside it. The film depicts a society in which artificially intelligent hearing devices serve as human companions.

The lonely future portrayed in Her is exactly what hearable technology should not evolve into. Yet, it reinforces how people generally perceive these earpieces — isolating and potentially embarrassing. We’ve already seen (and joked about) them with early iterations of the Bluetooth headset — this clunky, protruding device gave an almost comical impression that you are talking to yourself.

Bluetooth headsets introduced the world to the potential of hearables, but the stigma is still there and especially present in health devices, such as hearing aids. They give the impression that the user is immersed in their own world; they’re perceived as socially awkward. Yet, instead of merely combatting the existing stigma, companies should also aim to reshape it. Making devices less visible is a step in the right direction.

According to Maurizio Cibelli, co-founder and CEO of Italy-based Hutoma, a startup that is developing the technology to create emotionally intelligent neural network systems similar to that of Her. “There is a lot of discussion about hearable technology, and people’s perceptions immediately turn negative when they hear the term — that’s a difficult thing to measure at the moment.”

One solution is to transform these earpieces into more of a social experience. Instead of tuning out from their environment, why not develop hearables that also tune-in to the world around them?

Products like Doppler Labs’ Here and Motorola’s Hint aim to curate live experiences by not only enhancing the sounds that people want to hear, but also isolating and reducing unwanted noises, such as train sounds and airplane turbulence. These features are amazing; they’re transformative.

One goal of companies is to develop a product or service that will be used by consumers throughout the day for as long as possible. Certain devices, such as the iPhone and the iPad (Siri), have reached widespread adoptability and usability because they cater to all demographic groups; they are accessible and easy to use. Similarly with hearables, the devices should be intuitive, easy to learn and as unobtrusive to one’s lifestyle as possible, otherwise the technology becomes a temporary fad.

The potential in this sector is almost limitless. In a few years, there may be wireless earbuds that can facilitate real-time language translation, turn lights on and off, control temperature, send text messages and more — in addition to playing music.