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049 – Nick Hunn & Carl Thomas – The Past, Present and Future of Hearables

This week’s episode of the Future Ear Podcast features Nick Hunn, CTO at WiFore and Chairman of Bluetooth’s SIG Hearing Aid Working Group, and Carl Thomas, Founder of Audiowings. Our conversation today explores the first five years of hearables, the present state of the product category and its various subsets, and what the next five years might look like.

This conversation has been a long time coming. I actually started FuturEar not long after reading Nick’s seminal, “Hearables – the New Wearables,” whitepaper because I was so inspired by the type of innovation he outlined that hearables were due to experience. After I started the blog and wrote about some of the themes that Nick outlined in his paper, I met a lot of different folks operating in and around the hearables space, including Carl, who then introduced me to Nick.

The blog led to the podcast, which led me to the opportunity to have an in-depth conversation with Nick, the analyst who coined the term, “hearable,” and one of the main sources of inspiration for starting the blog, bringing things completely full-circle.

Pretty damn cool.

We begin with the origin of hearables, which Nick believes can be traced back to Bragi’s initial Kickstarter campaign in 2014. As Nick points out, the first few pioneers in the hearables space (namely, Bragi, Doppler and Nuheara) established the legitimacy of the product category and shed a light on the possibilities that these type of devices were capable of. Although some of these companies have either gone bankrupt or pivoted away from hardware, it cannot be overstated how important this first wave of startups were to the overall trajectory of hearables as technology.

Along with the first wave of hearables companies, the first five years of hearables can be largely defined as the era when AirPods broke out and hearables officially went mainstream. As Nick tells it, the reason that Apple’s AirPods were so wildly successful was because of the fact that the company actually neglected many of the ambitious use cases brought forward by the early pioneers, and instead focused primarily on making sure it nailed the pairing process, the carrying case (which sort of solved the battery life concerns), and the audio quality. As an early AirPods user, I can attest that the product felt almost magical at the time in the way they just worked.

The main reason why AirPods were so successful in the way they worked was largely due to the custom silicon that Apple built for its wearables with the W-series chip, and then more specifically with the debut of the H-series chip, which powers new generations of AirPods, AirPods Pro and Beats products. This is just another example of why Johny Srouji might be the most underrated executive at Apple, as so much of the company’s success across the past decade was due to Johny’s Apple Silicon team.

As we discuss, a solid understanding of the innovation transpiring at the chip-level inside the devices, allows one to gauge where the hearables market might ultimately end up going. For example, as Nick points out, the vast majority of the hearables devices on the market use Qualcomm & Broadcomm chips, so it’s important to understand what types of capabilities that Qualcomm’s chips can offer (i.e. the QCC-5100). The proliferation we’re seeing in the market with active noise cancellation is largely a byproduct of OEMs building devices with the QCC-5100, which economically enables ANC.

So, that then brings us to 2020 and Nick’s write-up of the market from 2020-2025. Little did Nick know that about one month after he issued his five year assessment, a pandemic would hit and alter the course of things (he issued a COVID update to his assessment yesterday). While COVID has had a negative impact on the hearing aid market due to the disruption in the service model (which appears to be returning to growth), its acted as an accelerant to the wireless earbud market as people are opting for Bluetooth devices to use for all their Zoom calls.

As the conversation continues, we delve into the types of use cases that we can expect as new wireless protocols, such as Bluetooth LE Audio, become standardized, and new hardware is added to devices, such as biometric sensors. Nick believes that one of the biggest growth sectors of hearables will be around biometric monitoring, citing the advantages of collecting data within the ear. As he points out, however, in order for biometric monitoring to take off in a big way for hearables, there will need to be an assessment layer of the data that’s being captured (which is why Apple might be even more important to this space in the future with Apple Health).

Bluetooth LE Audio will open the door to many new use cases – some that can be anticipated, others that will almost seem to come out of left field. Nick believes that the job of the Bluetooth special interest group that designed this new wireless protocol is to create building blocks and then sort of get out of the way and see what happens. The fact of the matter is that this low energy protocol will support more robust types of uses for the devices, while preserving the battery life.

Ultimately, hearables have crossed the bridge from the first phase of device proliferation to the second phase of an expansion of use cases. There’s little doubt that we’re moving into an era where it’s becoming increasingly common for people to wear gadgets in and around their ears for increasing periods of time. Now, the question is going to be, “what exactly can we now do with these devices?”

-Thanks for Reading-

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