Do you tend to stuff your earphones in your pocket? Or perhaps they're buried in your backpack? When you've invested in a set of 'hearables', you might handle them more carefully. These in-ear computers could help you get fit, improve your hearing and translate foreign languages.
The global market for Bluetooth-connected and wireless earbuds and headphones will be worth $40bn by 2020, calculates Nick Hunn, an analyst and chief technology officer at WiFore Consulting. His figures show a surge in the sales of Bluetooth-connected devices, which surpassed wired headphone sales, the former market leader.
It's tempting to suggest this is thanks to Apple's decision to ditch the headphone socket in its latest iPhone in favor of AirPods (Apple-branded wireless earbuds, pictured above). But it seems this merely accelerated an existing trend: people started buying these wireless devices two to three years ago, before AirPods launched. Hearables startups are now in a sweet spot. Hunn says: "You have rising demand just at the time the audio industry, particularly in the hearing aid market, is making advances in miniaturizing advanced technology so it can fit inside a small ear bud."
The entrepreneurs behind these audio inventions are typically reliant on crowdfunding. A good example is Bragi. It has developed a new way for electronic devices to interact with earbuds. This means, for example, that smartphones can be controlled without their owner needing to touch them. Instead, you can use head movements to take calls and browse your music library -- useful when jogging or cycling.
Nikolaj Hviid, Bragi's CEO, says more advanced wireless earphone technology will be made possible as mobile internet improves, since less power will be needed for good connectivity. "We'll be able to ditch the smartphone and have all the processing done within the earbuds themselves," he explains. "It's an exciting space [for startups] because you can get going by exciting the public on Kickstarter: they are likely to get [behind] your idea faster than venture capitalists."
For David Cannington, co-founder at earphone startup Nuheara, the real opportunity for earbuds is in using the tiny microprocessors to improve hearing. He points to widespread hearing problems: research from Action on Hearing Loss, for example, suggests that, in the UK, one in six people has some form of hearing loss. Cannington describes a common condition, colloquially called pub deafness. "You struggle to hear a friend speak over the background clatter. That's why we concentrate on settings that allow you to focus on whatever surroundings you're in, such as boosting the sound of the person talking in front of you but bringing down the background chatter."
Noah Kraft, CEO at Doppler Labs agrees. The company's Here One earbuds are made to enhance your hearing, even if you do not have hearing issues. It is working, for example, to improve noise-cancelling technology. Instead of blocking out all noise, Kraft claims his ear buds can block the roar of a jet engine but allow speech to pass through.
Kraft has bigger plans for the technology, though. "It's not natural for us to tap a piece of glass to communicate, whether it's on a phone or a wearable smartwatch." Instead, he imagines voice-activated assistants controlled through ear buds, which would make laptops and smartphones obsolete.
Another pioneering feature hearable startups are working on is in-ear translation, typically via a smartphone app. Waverly Labs, for example, aims to help people hold a normal conversation, but while each of them are speaking different languages. At the moment, both parties need an earpiece and the mobile app, and there tends to be a lag in conversation. But Andrew Ochoca, Waverly Labs's CEO, predicts this will change. He says: "We foresee [the technology] being hosted inside the earpieces soon so conversations can happen in real time in different languages and sound a lot more natural."
According to Nick Hunn, startups are bound to begin vying to do for earbuds what Dr Dre's Beats brand did for headphones (ie making them a must-have accessory). But he is not so sure the likes of Apple will be queuing up to buy entrepreneurs' hearables as they have all the expertise they need in-house.
However, as the Apple watch moves towards health apps, the company could be eyeing up startup inventions in that area. Hunn says: "The ear's a far better place than the wrist for most biometric sensors, so if someone comes up with a good health hearable, that could be different."
But this scenario good be a way could be a while off. Hunn says that far too many startups have not raised enough money to build both the technology they envision and a breakthrough brand. "Most crowdfunding initiatives fail because they promise too much," he adds. "[Startups would] do far better to concentrate on one feature and do it really well."
However, Waverley is one example of crowdfunding success, selling $5m worth of its pilot range of ear buds through a crowdfunding page, which meant not giving any stock away.
In Hunn's view, while crowdfunding can be a useful way to pre-sell, it is more a marketing exercise than a realistic way to build the technology. He adds: "The huge tech companies are more than happy to see startups throw millions at ear buds to find out what's possible, and what's popular, before launching their own solutions. Some startups may well yet find they're inadvertently contravening patents belonging to an audio giant who will let them develop the tech so far before they step in."
But he doesn't expect this to occur until one of the startups becomes commercially successful. If they become a threat, a bigger player might then use a injunction for infringing a patent to buy them out at a cheaper price. "Some of these startups don't realize yet that they're the canary in the mineshaft for the big tech guys."
Hence, Paul Jobin, founder of Snugs, believes he may be on to a better bet by ignoring this technology-driven battle and concentrating instead on improving the fit of earbuds. Jobin turned down an offer on Dragons' Den for a 5% stake in his company in preference for venture capital. He now has £25m worth of backing to roll out 3D scanners. These map the inside of an ear to provide a plastic tip that attaches to the end of an earbud so it fits the ear perfectly.
The next step for Jobin is an app that will use the twin cameras in the latest smartphones to provide a 3D map of the ear. Customers could do this at home, and then select a pair of tips.
As for the startups focusing on the inside workings of earbuds, Hunn says they will develop at a faster pace once technology allows for several days of battery life in earbuds.
He adds that the big technology players are likely to one day buy out hearables startups if they can show one of three qualities: a good solution, a good user-base or making a name with a specific, effective invention. "My guess is that they are going to be sensibly valued in the mid tens to hundreds of millions -- I don't think we know who they are yet."
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