Aug 2018 Fast Company
The explosive growth of their AI voice assistants has Google, Apple, and Amazon racing to put your entire smartphone in an earpiece. In October 2016, an impressive group of tech industry royalty took the time to get a demonstration of a product from a startup called Doppler Labs. Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates and CEO Satya Nadella each got one, as did Apple Internet chief Eddy Cue and Jimmy Iovine, head of Apple’s Beats headphone group. So did C-suite executives from Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Tencent. Donning pre-production versions of Doppler’s Here One wireless earbuds, they experienced the device’s ability to cancel out unwanted background noise, amplify the voice of a particular person in the room, and even converse with people speaking in another language. About a half-second after a Doppler staffer asked a question in Spanish, the wearer heard a computerised translation back into English.
At least two of the companies made informal acquisition bids, but none offered a high-enough price to convince Doppler to give up its dreams of launching a momentous new product. Sales failed to take off, and a year later the company was shuttered. But that’s not the end of the story. Within weeks of its closing, more than half of Doppler’s top technologists were working for the tech giants.
Now, Fast Company has learned that Amazon, Apple, and Google each have high-priority projects to pick up where Doppler left off. All three are working on products that combine the utility of the hearing aid with the entertainment value of a pair of high-end headphones, and potentially much more, say sources. Since all three have announced plans to get into healthcare, they could easily add fitness and health monitoring sensors for everything from counting steps to measuring oxygen saturation. And while it may take years to happen, none want to be left behind should it become possible to create a general purpose, in-ear computer that allows consumers to leave their phone in the desk drawer.
“Ultimately, the idea is to steal time from the smartphone,” says Gints Klimanis, Doppler’s former head of audio engineering. “The smartphone will probably never go away completely, but the combination of voice commands and hearing could become the primary interface for anything spontaneous.”
WHY HEARABLES, WHY NOW?
For half-a-decade, Doppler and other startups have been trying—and failing—to come up with a “hearable” with the combination of sound quality, battery life and cool factor to become a mass market hit. So. why the sudden interest from the big guys? Because personal voice assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Google Assistant and Microsoft’s Cortana, have suddenly emerged as the biggest interface revolution since the iPhone popularised the touchscreen.
Our desire to use technology without the hassle of touching it has made smart speakers the fastest growing new hardware market in years, says Strategy Analytics’ analyst Cliff Raskind. By 2023, 63 percent of U.S. homes will have a device like the Amazon Echo or Google Home, up from .03 percent in 2014 and 16 percent in 2017. By then, Americans will speak rather than type more than half of their Google search queries, predicts Comscore. The market for ads delivered in response to voice queries will be $12 billion, according to Juniper Research. And these predictions don’t even contemplate a future when consumers have computers in their ears for more of their waking hours, providing tech giants with even more data on their movements and desires—not to mention a channel into their brains that makes shopping as frictionless as saying “Alexa, buy (fill in blank).”
THE FUTURE IS EAR
“There’s much more that tech companies can do with ears than amplify music and make phone calls,” says Satjiv Chahil, a former Apple marketing executive who has advised hearing aid maker Starkey Hearing Technologies in recent years. “It’s about allowing your virtual assistant to whisper in customers’ ears throughout the day, while also enhancing their health and well-being.” Your ears have some enormously valuable properties. They are located just inches from your mouth, so they can understand your utterances far better than smart speakers across the room. Unlike your eyes, your ears are at work even when you are asleep, and they are our ultimate multi-taskers. Thousands die every year trying to text while they drive, but most people have no problem driving safely while talking or dictating messages–even if music is playing and children are chatting in the background. Ears are not in the front of your face, so it may be easier for the Jony Ive’s of the future to come up with fashionable or even invisible designs for the ear than for the eye.
Those are just the obvious advantages. With the right sensors and processing on board, a hearable can tell if your head is pointed toward a store shelf in front of your face or at a billboard down the road. Add in a heart-rate monitor to measure stress and an electroencephalogram sensor to analyse spatial brain activity, and it could know what you are thinking about to some degree—say, how much of your attention is being paid to the sound of footsteps coming up behind you, says Poppy Crum, chief scientist at Dolby Laboratories.
Yes, AI-enhanced hearables in the future will be able to understand more than the words we speak. A Cambridge, UK-based startup called Audio Analytic is already licensing the ability for a device to recognise the sound of a window breaking or a baby crying. At this rate, it won’t be long before Amazon can send ads for Robitussin when it hears you cough.
THE HEARABLE CHALLENGE
The ear also presents nasty challenges for any company hoping to sell a mass-market computing device. Such a device must be tiny, nearly weightless and fit perfectly in each person’s anatomically unique ear canal to be comfortable for long stretches of time. At the same time, it must have enough battery power to last at least as long as a smartphone, not to mention a strong antenna and on-board processor. There’s also the problem of earwax, and the unsolved mystery of how to use an ears-only device without too much head-shaking, hand-waving, ear-tapping, or self-talking. According to one recent study, only six percent of Americans said they were comfortable talking to their voice assistant in public.
Then there’s the stubborn stigma against hearing aids. While hundreds of millions of people think nothing of wearing head or earphones, only 16 percent of the 48 million Americans who could benefit from hearing aids have purchased a pair, says the Hearing Loss Association of America. Those that do buy tend to put it off for an average of seven years. Tight regulation of the industry hasn’t helped. Because hearing aids have been defined as medical devices, manufacturers must get products approved by the Food & Drug Administration, and consumers need to get a doctor’s prescription and pay to see an audiologist, usually with no help from insurance. Content to go for profit margins over sales growth, a stodgy oligopoly of five companies has been able to dominate the $6 billion-a-year hearing aid industry , selling products that cost an average of $2,700 per pair, according to Consumer Reports. A top-of-the-line pair will set you back $10,000 or more.
Now, that regulatory anchor is about to come loose. Last August, Congress passed the “OTC Hearing Aid Law of 2017”. When it goes into effect in August 2020, if not sooner, companies will be able to sell hearing aids over the counter to people with mild to medium impairment online or at any drugstore, just like glasses makers sell $10 readers to people who don’t want to bother with an optometrist. This opens a large and growing market. The World Health Organization says that 1.1 billion children and young adults around the world are at risk of hearing loss, having grown up with earphones blasting away at point-blank range. The law could have dramatic impact. Suddenly, anyone who finds themselves saying “what?” more often than they would like will be able to walk into a Walgreens and buy a consumer-y looking device for a few hundred dollars. Very likely, they will pick it up in the electronics aisle next to colourful iPhone covers and FitBits, not in the aisle for Depends and other products for the elderly. The device may not be marketed as a hearing aid at all, but as Bluetooth earphones with “hearing enhancement” or “personalisation.”
“I’ve been waiting for this moment for 20 years,” says KR Liu, Doppler’s former vice president of accessibility, who has worn hearing aids to battle severe hearing loss since she was three. “You have these amazing companies that can do amazing things and have the branding power to de-stigmatise hearing aids.”
Doppler is gone, but the vital signs of the hearables market are getting stronger. Salaries for audio technologists are soaring, with big tech companies often paying $200,000 salaries to top talent from startups and the traditional hearing aid companies. Mobile chip giant Qualcomm introduced its first family of chips specifically for hearables in March, and other chip companies are expected to follow suit by the end of the year. Amazon, Google, and Apple are keeping their cards to the vest. Three former Doppler employees say Amazon already had a team of 70 people working on hearables when the companies were in talks last year. While Google’s hardware team continues works on Pixel Buds and other products, Google’s X unit is looking at developing fully independent in-ear computers, while the Google Voice unit focuses on ways to make that personal assistant more accessible via ear-based devices, says a person that’s had dealings with all three.
Apple is also marching ahead in its deliberate way. Rather than build a revolutionary new product to usher in the hearable era, it will continue to add new capabilities in familiar form factors, sources say. According to Bloomberg, the company will announce high-end headphones for music lovers by the end of the year, and will introduce a water-resistant upgrade of the AirPods, that includes the ability to activate the device by saying “Hey, Siri.”
Other pioneers of the hearables market are already preparing for the big guys’ arrival. Bragi, a German company founded shortly before Doppler, recently decided to stop selling its hearable devices in favour of licensing its software. “When you’ve got Apple and others coming directly after you, you need to change where you invest,” says CEO Nikolaj Hviid. “On the other hand, it’s nice to suddenly be getting all this company.”