Stick it in your ear: the future of wearables is hearables

Image credit: Kate Loz |

ITEM: “Hearables are the new wearables,” analyst firm IDC declared in a headline this week, although technically it would be more accurate to say that hearables are the hottest category of wearables. Either way, they’re selling like crazy, and they may continue to do so as their functionality improves, despite the best efforts of critics to make them sound scary and dystopian.

For the curmudgeons tuning in, “hearables” is a fancy term for wearables you plug in, clip on, or otherwise screw in your ears – Bluetooth headsets, AirPods, and similar gadgets. But they’re not simply wireless headphones – for the purposes of IDC’s Worldwide Quarterly Wearable Device Tracker, a hearable not only provides stereo sound, but also at least one other function – fitness/health tracker, language translation, audio modification beyond straight noise reduction (for example: dynamic, context-aware noise cancellation) and/or access to a virtual assistant, whether it runs natively on the hearable device or on a smartphone.

All of the above are already on the market, and they’re the fastest growing category of wearables, says IDC. Of the 67.7 million wearable device units shipped globally in Q2 2019, close to 47% of them were hearables (up from 24.8% a year ago). A key driver of that growth was a bunch of new product releases and consumers buying them to use in parallel with existing watches or wrist bands, IDC says.

But what’s really driving the hearable craze is the experience, says Ramon T. Llamas, IDC’s wearables research director:

“Quality audio is still the hallmark of hearables, but additional features – ranging from adjusting audio to smart assistants and health and fitness – increase their value and utility. As prices come down and more features come on board, this next generation of hearables will become the new normal for earphones.” 

Hearables? Sneerables, more like!

Not everyone is thrilled with the hearables trend, of course. Hearables have drawn plenty of criticism on several different fronts.

For example, some people think hearables look silly. People laughed at AirPods when Apple launched them in 2016. Three years later, says IDC, they still account for half of the hearables market.

Then there’s the complaint that hearables are status symbols for rich people, which I guess is a problem if you hate rich people. Otherwise, meh.

Inevitably, some people also worry that hearables are a major cancer risk because you’re essentially sticking radios in your ears. On the bright side, current research suggests hearables are as dangerous as mobile phones – which is to say, not at all, as far as we know, but more research is welcome).

A more legitimate concern is that hearables are terrible for the environment because they’re notoriously easy to lose, which means you constantly have to buy replacements, which means more e-waste.

There’s also the worry that walking around with hearables stuck in our ears at best creates etiquette dilemmas and at worst makes us more anti-social in the sense that we’re able to screen out the world around us by piping music in our ears. On the other hand, that worry has been in circulation ever since Walkmans once dominated the earth, yet it hasn’t convinced too many people that portable headphones are a bad idea.

‘Empathetic’ technology

Indeed, despite decades of naysayers, headphones of any stripe are the new normal now. It reminds me of when Bluetooth hands-free headsets first started to take off. Up to then, if we saw someone walking down the street talking to themselves and they weren’t holding a phone to their ear, we assumed they were mentally ill. Nowadays we just assume they’re on a call.

Also, these days there’s something appealing about a device that allows you to swap the unpleasant ambient noise of the world for music or podcasts or other pleasing audio – or gives you an excuse to avoid talking to people when you don’t feel up to it.

In fact, according to Poppy Crum, chief scientist at Dolby Laboratories and an adjunct professor at Stanford University, in the not too distant future, hearables will be smart enough to know when we need to unplug our ears from the world.

Like smartwatches, hearables can already monitor basic vital signs like your heart rate. But they’re capable of far more than that. As Crum wrote in a recent article for IEEE Spectrum, the technology already exists to enable hearables to monitor your brain to detect when you’re feeling stressed over mentally overloaded:

When we are struggling to hear or understand, these devices will proactively help us focus on the sounds we want to hear. They’ll also reduce the sounds that cause us stress, and even connect to other devices around us, like thermostats and lighting controls, to let us feel more at ease in our surroundings. They will be a technology that is truly empathetic …

As someone who is typing this in a coffee shop next to a store that is being very loudly renovated, I have to say that’s a persuasive pitch.

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