Hearables: The Voice In Your Head is About to Get a Lot Smarter

In Spike Jonze’s 2013 sci-fi drama “Her,” a man falls in love with his computer. His operating system has no face or body, but her voice and personality, piped into his ear by a wireless earbud, captivates him so that he can’t help himself. Even a disembodied voice can have incredible power.

”Each new platform begets a new platform. Platform evolution is rooted in how we communicate and with whom we communicate.”

Audio has the potential to become an entirely new platform unto itself. Right now text and video are dominating because they work well on mobile devices and laptops, but the emergence of smart earbuds could change that.

This could be big news for marketers because studies show that audio is incredibly engaging, and promotes above average brand recall. A study by GfK MRI Starch Advertising Research in 2014 found that the recall rate from print and tablet-based magazine ads was only 52-percent.

A study the following year by Undertone and Ipsos ASI found that full-page takeover display ads fared even worse, with a mere 45-percent recall rate on mobile, and 35-percent on desktop devices.

By comparison, recall of ads played during podcasts was measured by Midroll at over 70-percent. In one case, 82-percent of respondents were able to not only recall the ad, but could repeat back specific talking points including the tagline and offering details.

A Wide Open Market

Smart earbuds, sometimes called “hearables,” are still pretty much vaporware, with few real products on store shelves, and most still in the prototype phase. But, the market is growing fast. The hottest contender at the moment is the Bragi Dash, which offers biomonitoring features and raised over $3m on Kickstarter.

Early reviews have been mixed, but the potential is clearly there. Bragi, a German company, also improved its odds of success by securing a partnership with hearing aid manufacturer Starkey, which could give them entry into the lucrative health devices market. Starkey, for its part, would like to expand its reach into consumer technologies.

Another Kickstarter success was the Here Active Listening system, which promises to give us more control over what we hear, and perhaps more importantly, what we don’t. If the concert you’re at is just a bit too loud, turn down the volume a notch. If you can’t make out your professor’s high pitched voice over the low rumble of construction outside, turn down the bass.

Newcomer, Waverly Labs intends to use smart earbuds to make the universal translator of science-fiction a reality. It posted a video of a concept called the Pilot: “a three-part system: Two Bluetooth earbuds (one for you and your friend/travelbuddy/interlocutor), plus your phone acting as the brains of the operation.”

Don’t expect the tech giants to be left behind though. Smart earbud products are in development by a number of major companies. Samsung recently announced a pair of hearables called the IconX that look remarkably similar to Bragi’s offering. Sony may have missed the boat on smartphones, but sees the Xperia Ear is its chance to get in early on the next potential platform.

Intel, perhaps aping the success Apple found by acquiring Dr. Dre’s Beats brand, partnered with Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson to create a smart version of the rapper’s SMS Audio earphonesUnder Armour teamed with JBL on a pair of heartrate monitoring earbuds.

Smart Whispers

One of the biggest advantages of smart earbuds will be having a discrete channel for virtual assistants like Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, and Google’s Now service to whisper updates and information unbeknownst to those around you. One day, at exam time, proctors may have to go around the room to make sure test-takers aren’t getting discreet help from virtual aids.

Mark Rolston, former CCO of Frog and founder of Argodesign has ideas about how brands will take advantage of in-ear tech as well:

“I can order Domino’s pizza with Alexa. I can order an Uber. But these are all brands that spend millions of dollars establishing their voice as a brand. So if I have an app within Siri that’s a pizza company, maybe I don’t say, ‘Hey Siri.’ I say, ‘Hey Pizza Pizza.’ Because the pizza company, these guys don’t want to be Siri, they want to be them.”

According to Wifore Consulting, the market for smart earbuds could hit $5 billion in 2018.

“‘Amazon doesn’t want to be a destination anymore,’ wrote TechCrunch’s Greg Kumparak in a recent column. ‘They don’t want to be something you have to go to; they want to be ubiquitous. They want their store ‘front end’ to be floating in the ether all around you, just waiting for you to open your mouth.’”

The ubiquitous computing revolution is upon us. Eventually the candybar phones in our pockets will give way to a range of products like heads-up-display smart glasses and hearables that better integrate into our lives.

Smartphone zombies, walking through traffic while staring down, may be remembered as a brief and awkward early step on the road to a world where we are connected across all devices and platforms seamlessly.