Era of ‘hearables’ offering a central management interface is near

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New Delhi | Published: May 28, 2019 3:03:53 AM

Companies like OnePlus have found a go-around.

one plius, one plus bullets 2 headphone, technologyThe new OnePlus Bullets 2 wireless headphone can offer 10 hours of playback if charged for just 10 minutes.

Over the past couple of years, audio devices have seen a big change. For one, they are becoming smaller than ever before, and then the audio quality is now better on wireless that it was with wired. These two factors are also set to change how we will use personal audio devices in the near future. In fact, they will become much than just devices to listen to music with.

“Our vision of the headphone is more to become the central management interface for the IoT where voice-enabled devices get the commands and the user gets all the feedback, controls and directions on the other end,” says Sennheiser Electronic CEO Andreas Sennheiser on how he thinks personal audio devices will change in the coming years.

But these are early days and we don’t know much about how the segment or the design will evolve for new use cases. “The form factor that exists today isn’t the form factor of the future. So we have to miniaturise even more, we have to work on battery life, we have to work on all the hardware-related things, while making sure that we extend the functionality through software,” he told me in a recent interaction.
That is easier said than done, because there is one big stumbling block in the way. Sennheiser says if he could make a wish, “I would want a battery that is as small as my fingernail and last for a week.” So, achieving the form factors needed for audio devices of the future are still restricted by the practical physics that governs batteries. “I say it’s not a problem per se, but it’s just a compromise to be made.”

Companies like OnePlus have found a go-around. The new OnePlus Bullets 2 wireless headphone can offer 10 hours of playback if charged for just 10 minutes. However, that is not the answer everyone is looking for.
Sennheiser adds this audio-driven central man-machine interface would be much more than just a listening device in the future. A perfect future could be when an earphone that cannot be seen—it is small enough to fit inside your ears—becomes the primary interface for your phone, which, in turn, can be tucked away somewhere else. “We see this convergence already. In the past, we had headphones with no intelligence built-in and all the intelligence had to come from somewhere else. We now have headphones that have shared intelligence, some in the device itself and some in an app on another device,” he says, adding how it is only a matter of time before we see more independence from handheld devices and more intelligence being built into the ‘hearable’ itself.

There is more to the hearable. Scientists across the world are working on ways to let these devices help correct and even augment hearing capabilities. Plus cloud functionalities like ‘simultaneous translation’ that will enable users to understand foreign languages and interact effectively.

The scion of the Germany-based audio giant also talks of a future where enhancements in the audio space are more software drives, where headphones connect “directly to the cloud without any intermediate device.” His company is already focusing on software-enabled functionalities and features that can cover a lot of different demands, “by having a technology platform in which you can, say, have hearing augmentation on one side or noise cancellation on the other side, or just tuning to your personal preferences on a third product.” This, he says, will be a highly individualised experience, app-enabled and cloud-based.

With a hearable, “a car mechanic can get advice on how much a screw that he’s looking at must be tightened,” Sennheiser explains, elaborating how these new devices could be effective in almost every segment, “being a helpful guide to compliment your abilities.”

As these devices that can hear become smarter, it would be important that the user is in control. “If the user wants to use the product as seamlessly as possible, he/she may agree that no keywords (wake words) are needed and the devices can constantly be listening. Or if there is a high privacy concern, the user may want to completely switch off any listening functionality. The user must be in full control of what the product does.” Are you listening?

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