Are hearables the future of wearables?

Well, it may be technically more accurate to say that hearables are the hottest category of wearables. Either way, they’re selling like crazy, and they may continue to do so as their functionality improves, despite the best efforts of critics to make them sound scary and dystopian.

As a primer, “hearables” is a fancy term for wearables you plug in, clip on, or otherwise screw in your ears – Bluetooth headsets, AirPods, and similar gadgets. But they’re not simply wireless headphones , a hearable not only provides stereo sound, but also at least one other function – fitness/health tracker, language translation, audio modification beyond straight noise reduction (for example: dynamic, context-aware noise cancellation) and/or access to a virtual assistant, whether it runs natively on the hearable device or on a smartphone.

All of the above are already on the market, and they’re the fastest growing category of wearables, says research firm IDC. Of the 67.7 million wearable device units shipped globally in Q2 2019, close to 47% of them were hearables (up from 24.8% a year ago). A key driver of that growth was a bunch of new product releases and consumers buying them to use in parallel with existing watches or wrist bands, IDC says.

Not everyone is thrilled with the hearables trend, of course. Hearables have drawn plenty of criticism on several different fronts. For example, some people think hearables look silly. People laughed at AirPods when Apple launched them in 2016. Three years later, says IDC, they still account for half of the hearables market.

Then there’s the complaint that hearables are status symbols for rich people, which I guess is a problem if you hate rich people. Otherwise, meh.

Inevitably, some people also worry that hearables are a major cancer risk because you’re essentially sticking radios in your ears. On the bright side, current research suggests hearables are as dangerous as mobile phones – which is to say, not at all, as far as we know, but more research is welcome).

A more legitimate concern is that hearables are terrible for the environment because they’re notoriously easy to lose, which means you constantly have to buy replacements, which means more e-waste.

There’s also the worry that walking around with hearables stuck in our ears at best creates etiquette dilemmas and at worst makes us more anti-social in the sense that we’re able to screen out the world around us by piping music in our ears. On the other hand, that worry has been in circulation ever since Walkmans once dominated the earth, yet it hasn’t convinced too many people that portable headphones are a bad idea.

Indeed, despite decades of naysayers, headphones of any stripe are the new normal now. It reminds me of when Bluetooth hands-free headsets first started to take off. Up to then, if we saw someone walking down the street talking to themselves and they weren’t holding a phone to their ear, we assumed they were mentally ill. Nowadays we just assume they’re on a call.

Also, these days there’s something appealing about a device that allows you to swap the unpleasant ambient noise of the world for music or podcasts or other pleasing audio – or gives you an excuse to avoid talking to people when you don’t feel up to it.

There is still a long way to go for hearables to become our intelligent personal assistant and quite a few challenges too. The first and foremost being the battery life. If hearables have to become the indispensable part of our lives, they literally need to be with us 24/7. This calls for a battery life of, if not 24 hours, at least 18–20 hrs and that too in a size which fits inside an almost invisible hearable. This brings us to another challenge of how well a standard size hearable fits the ears of different people. While it is believed that 3-D scanning inside of the ear, can create a custom fit hearable that works for everyone, it remains to be seen how it will play out.

Hearable is a promising technology with capability of adding more value than any wearable has so far. It brings in an unexplored parameter into the picture- the human ear and with it comes infinite possibilities. While the companies race to become number one, we can sit back and watch the evolution of this tiny device into its smarter and better self.

Whatever happens in the meantime, just plug in and enjoy the music. Keep bouncing.

Thanks Kow for suggesting the topic for this post!

Check out my related post: Do you have a wearable?

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