Nick Hunn, the wireless technology analyst and CTO of WiFore Consulting, coined the term “hearables” in his now famous white paper, “Hearables – the new Wearables,” back in 2014. For today’s update, I thought it might be fun to look back at Nick’s initial piece to really appreciate some of his prescient foresight with predicting how our ear-worn devices would mature across the coming years.
For starters, one of the most brilliant insights that Nick shared was around the new Bluetooth standards that were being adopted at the time and the implications for battery life:
“The Hearing Aid industry’s trade body – EHIMA, has just signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Bluetooth SIG to develop a new generation of the Bluetooth standard which will reduce the power consumption for wireless streaming to the point where this becomes possible, adding audio capabilities to Bluetooth Smart. Whilst the primary purpose of the work is to let hearing aids receive audio streams from mobile phones, music players and TVs, it will have the capability to add low power audio to a new generation of ear buds and headsets.”
To put this into perspective, the first “made-for-iPhone” hearing aid, The Linx, had just been unveiled by Resound at the end of 2013. Nick published his paper in April of 2014, so it may have been apparent for close observers that hearing aids were heading toward iPhone’s 2.4 GHz Bluetooth protocol (every hearing aid manufacturer ended up adopting it), but without a background like Nick’s, working in the broad field of wireless technology, it may have been hard to know about the way in which this new Bluetooth standard (initially called Bluetooth Smart and then later called Bluetooth Low Energy) would allow for more efficient power consumption.
Nick’s insight became more pronounced as Apple rolled out its AirPods in 2016 with its flagship W1 chip, which used ultra-low power Bluetooth allowing for 5 hours of audio streaming (2 hours of talk time). Flash-forward to today, and Apple has released its AirPods 2.0 that uses the H1 chip and Bluetooth 5.0, allowing for even more efficient power consumption.
It needs to be constantly reiterated that hearables were deemed unrealistic up until midway through the 2010’s because of how inefficient the power consumption was with previous Bluetooth standards. Batteries represent one component inside miniature devices that has historically not seen a whole lot of innovation, both in terms of size reduction and also by energy density, so it might not have been obvious to see that the work-around to this major roadblock was actually in the way that the power from the battery was extracted via new methods of Bluetooth signaling.
The other aspect of hearables that Nick absolutely nailed was that ear-worn devices would eventually become laden with biometric sensors:
“Few people realise that the ear is a remarkably good place to measure many vital signs. Unlike the wrist, the ear doesn’t move around much while you’re taking measurements, which can make it more reliable for things like heart rate, blood pressure, temperature and pulse oximetry. It can even provide a useful site for ECG measurement.”
Today, US hearing aid manufacturer, Starkey has incorporated one of Valencell’s heart rate monitors into its Livio AI hearing aids. This new integration unveiled at CES this year was made possible due to the miniaturization of ECG sensors to the point they can be fit onto a tiny, receiver-in-the-canal (RIC) hearing aid. To Nick’s point, there are significant advantages to recording biometric data in the ear rather than the wrist, so it should come as no surprise as future versions of AirPods and its competitors come equipped with various sensors over time.
Nick continues to write and share his insights, so if you’re not already following his work, it might be a good time to start reading up on Nick’s thinking about how our little ear-computers will continue to evolve.
-Thanks for Reading-
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