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Smart Home

Sensory is bringing Alexa to your headphones this CES 2017

New tech from hardware developer Sensory will soon give your Bluetooth headphones always-listening capabilities.

Amazon Echo has blown up the smart home market in the last year because of its easy-to-use always-listening functionality. That's a little more intuitive than speaking, after all. Despite Apple's "Hey, Siri" function, and Google's "Okay, Google," however, always-listening tech just hasn't ported as well to the phone; by often forcing you to pick up the phone, rarely is it truly hands-free.

But a new hardware could change that. Sensory, the developer behind always-listening tech in devices like Samsung's Galaxy phones, is bringing a feature called VoiceGenie to Bluetooth headphones. It will allow your preferred voice assistant, including Alexa, to live directly in your ear.

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Sensory's name won't be what consumers see when VoiceGenie becomes available in the coming months, because the company plans to license out its hardware to Bluetooth headphone developers. One company, BlueAnt, already has plans to release a VoiceGenie-enabled product -- and according to Sensory CEO Todd Mozer, more partnerships will likely materialize by summer 2017.

Along with the hardware, Sensory plans to offer developers a white-labeled iOS and Android app that will allow cloud-access to Alexa on the go. That means users will be able to chat with Google Assistant, Siri, Cortana, or Alexa anywhere -- totally hands-free. You just speak the wake word.

Sensory's hardware, in its current form, feels a little schizophrenic: The VoiceGenie assistant controls the actual Bluetooth headphone settings or accesses the on-phone voice assistant. When I demoed a prototype of some enabled headphones, though, Alexa access was impressively seamless.

Because Sensory is licensing VoiceGenie out to various developers, it's not too far-fetched to expect always-listening features across many brands of Bluetooth headphones soon -- something that could very well bring us closer to the reality depicted in the movie "Her," in which everyone has their own voice OS always available for a chat. How quickly we get there, however, depends on how easy the hardware is to adopt for developers. Mozer says neither production costs nor battery life should be dramatically affected by inclusion of Sensory's hardware.

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Chris Monroe/CNET

No matter how Sensory's partnerships develop in the coming months, VoiceGenie's promise is clear. While buying a Google Home or Amazon Echo requires an unfamiliar monetary investment, most people already have phones and headphones. VoiceGenie and its app, if they become standard, could change the way we interact with the devices already firmly embedded in our lives -- and it could make voice assistants just as integral.