If the past year has proved anything, it’s that wearable devices come in all shapes and sizes. While fitness bands and smartwatches are currently the most popular designs, we’ve seen wearables that you can wear on your face (Google Glass), your finger (Ringly, Moodmetric), your chest (AmpStrip), your back (Lumo Lift) and even your feet (Sensoria Smart Socks).
While most observers consider 2015 as the year of the smartwatch, wearables that you stick in your ear are showing surprising promise.
These ‘hearable’ devices have several advantages over wrist-worn technology. The majority of us are already used to wearing in-ear headphones to listen to music; they are small and unobtrusive; plus Google Now, Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana have proved that devices can be successfully controlled with voice commands. Who needs a screen?
Crucially, the ear is also a better place than the wrist to capture core health data. According to Dr. Steven LeBoeuf, President of biometric sensor manufacturer Valencell, “your ear has a unique vascular structure which allows you to pick up heart rate and respiration rate, also your tympanic membrane radiates your body heat so you can get your core body temperature.”
You’ll find Valencell’s technology, which incorporates an optical emitter, an optical detector, specialized optomechanics and an accelerometer, inside the SMS Audio BioSport In-Ear Wired Ear Buds. These buds combine studio mastered audio with photoplethysmography, which uses light to measure blood flow and track heart rate. Link them up to the free Runkeeper app and you have a fitness tracker that’s better (and more accurate) than many bands.
The SMS Audio BioSport In-Ear Wired Ear Buds get their power from the smartphone they’re plugged into. But wireless hearable options are also beginning to appear.
The FreeWavz smart earphones, for example, feature heart rate monitoring, activity tracking and audio alerts without the BioSport’s wires. While The Dash are a pair of wireless in-ear headphones that pack in a 4GB MP3 player, microphone, Bluetooth headset functionality, fitness tracking and heart rate monitoring.
Obviously battery life is a problem – hearables are smaller than competing fitness bands and smartwatches. So while a FitBit will last up to a week on a single charge, The Dash can only muster 3-4 hours and the FreeWavz (which are bigger) will go for 6-8 hours. For now, hearable technology isn’t suitable for all-day use.
Of course, fitness tracking isn’t the only direction that hearable technology is heading. The BitBite earpiece takes a different tack and is designed to track how you eat. Data from its built-in accelerometer can be used to tell if you’re eating too much or chewing your food too fast. According to its developers, “BitBite ‘listens’ to your eating and guides you with real-time dietary advice.”
The Moto Hint is different again. The wireless earpiece works with Motorola’s Moto X smartphone and its Moto Voice feature. This enables you to ask questions and get answers from Google Now, hear notifications, make phone calls, and send messages without having to touch/look at your phone. To maximise battery life, a proximity sensor auto-connects the device to your phone when it senses that you’re wearing it.
And if you’re worried that hearable technology will be uncomfortable to wear or won’t fit your ear, future devices might be inspired by Normal. The New York-based company makes premium, 3D-printed earphones to ensure a custom fit. Or women might be drawn to products like the Ear-O-Smart, a smart earring that can monitor heart rate, calories burned and activity levels.
Now imagine the fitness tracking prowess of the BioSport and FreeWavz earphones, combined with the voice control and notifications of the Moto Hint. A computer in your ear might be the ultimate digital tool – Intel’s Jarvis concept, which was revealed at CES 2014, featured an always-on digital assistant that gives you audio feedback and responds to voice commands and queries.
We’re just waiting for somebody to build one.