WHEN Apple in early September introduced a new iPhone without a jack for headphones, together with pricey wireless earbuds that you speak into, it did not take long for mocking videos to appear online. In one, an enterprising soul reveals a “secret hack” to get back the jack: he drills a hole into a new iPhone. In another video, a fake commercial, the AirPods, as the untethered headphones are called, keep popping out of users’ ears and are eaten by a dog (pictured).
Whatever one thinks of Apple’s AirPods, which cost $159 a pair and are expected to go on sale in late October, they stand not just for one, but two emerging markets in personal technology. One is called “hearables”—meaning “smart” ear devices. The other is “smart speakers”, like Amazon’s popular Echo product, which sits in people’s homes and can respond to voice commands. Both gadgets herald a world in which people communicate with machines by speaking, much like in the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey”, in which the crew talked to HAL, a chillingly sentient computer.
Untethered headphones have been around for some time, although they are often a disappointment because the wireless connection with a smartphone is not stable enough. Hearables not only solve this problem, says George Jijiashvili of CCS Insight, a market-research outfit, but come with all manner of other components: processors, microphones and sensors, including accelerometers, a heart-rate monitor and a GPS receiver.
The added intelligence enables all kinds of features. Smart earbuds can store music. They can monitor the user’s physical activity, for instance counting the number of push-ups he is supposed to perform. They can read his gestures, such as nodding. And they can, much like noise-cancelling headsets, suppress distracting background babble—or amplify sounds users want to hear, a bit like hearing aids.
Apple’s AirPods will do well in the category of smart earbuds, but the market will be small—CCS Insight expects around 9m pairs to be sold each year by 2020—and it isn’t the pioneer in the field. Nikolaj Hviid, the boss of Bragi, a German firm, says that since its headphones went on sale six months ago, more than 100,000 have sold. Doppler Labs is on a similar path. If Microsoft put a computer on every desk and Apple one into every pocket, Doppler wants to put one “into everyone’s ears”, says Noah Kraft, the firm’s boss. One feature is “layered listening”, the audio equivalent of augmented reality. The firm’s new smart buds, due out in November, will be able to filter out specific sounds, such as a baby’s cry, and insert others, such as a football-match commentary.
Such ambitions point to what is perhaps the most intriguing feature of smart buds: they are a convenient conduit to intelligent digital assistants, such as Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana. Currently, these services, which can process natural speech and are powered by artificial intelligence in the computing clouds, reach users mostly through smartphones, where they help them search the internet or send texts without having to type or tap.
People will not just talk to such digital assistants via hearables but also through the other new category of devices: smart speakers such as Amazon’s Echo. When the e-commerce conglomerate introduced it, many thought it was just another, possibly unnecessary gadget. For $180 a pop, owners of the cylinder-shaped device can use voice commands to play music, call a taxi and, of course, order stuff from Amazon. But the Echo has been surprisingly successful, with more than 3m units expected to be sold this year and 10m in 2017.
One reason for the rapid adoption is that Amazon has turned Alexa, its digital assistant, into a “platform”: a set of services that other developers can combine to build a “skill”, the equivalent of an app on a smartphone. More than 3,000 such skills—some created by Amazon, many more by a growing number of third parties—are already available, ranging from simple tasks such as setting an alarm to more complicated ones such as managing a share portfolio. Lots of children have come to treat Alexa, in combination with Echo, as a sort of family member at home, market researchers say.
Competitors are trying to catch up. When Google introduces a number of new products on October 4th, it is expected to unveil Google Home, which will probably offer much the same features as the Echo. Rumours have it that Apple, too, is working on a device in time for next year. Other firms, including China’s Baidu and South Korea’s Samsung, are expected to come out with smart speakers. Qualcomm, a big American chip designer, has already developed a circuit board that makes it easy to build such devices. As the hardware becomes a commodity, firms that offer the best voice service will win, predicts Martin Garner, also of CCS Insight. One of the key factors, he argues, will be access to data. Since Google, for instance, knows what people search for, it also knows how they ask questions, which will help make its digital assistant (creatively called “Assistant”) work well in different languages.
“As accuracy of speech recognition goes from 95% to 99%, all of us…will go from barely using it to using it all the time,” said Andrew Ng, Baidu’s chief scientist, recently. But hearables and smart speakers have a drawback. When they get hacked, either by criminals or by intelligence services, they could become a bit like George Orwell’s “telescreens”. “Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper,” Orwell wrote in his novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, would be picked up.