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The future of augmented reality might be in your ear

The next big thing in earbuds is a form of AR you never thought of.

Waverly Ambassador
Waverly Labs

Smart hearables are a lesser-known category of tech that goes beyond playing music, handling calls and damping external noise. Using custom ear tuning, selective noise cancellation and real-time language translation, smart hearables shape or augment the audible world around us. Unlike visual forms of AR that ask us to awkwardly utilize screens or glasses, hearables go where we're already happy to stick some tech: in our ears. 

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Smarter noise cancellation

Noise cancellation is now table stakes for premium earbuds and headphones, but not enough in itself to qualify a product as a "smart hearable." At a minimum, look for a feature like Transparency Mode on Apple AirPods Pro that lets you mix external sound with that coming from your device. Nuheara's new IQbuds Max and Olive's Smart Ear also have modes that allow you to hear nearby conversation or a TV while muting many other sounds. Flight attendants will rejoice when they don't have to say everything twice as they work the aisle.

Hearing aids for all

Hearing aids have long been flesh-colored devices worn in the whiskery ears of old people. Not cool. The Olive Smart Ear is small and Apple-white. You set it up via an app-driven hearing test to tune the device to the quirks of your personal hearing. After that, the device essentially EQs the world to your ears while also offering variable amplification taken from the traditional hearing aid playbook.

Olive Smart Ear

The innards of the Olive Smart Ear

Olive

The Nuheara IQBuds2 Max also tune themselves to your ears using an app-based version of the NAL-NL2 test procedure used by audiologists to improve speech intelligibility and smooth out differences in loudness around you. Directional microphones and an algorithm called SINC (Speech in Noise Control) also help create what Nuheara describes as listening "focus", not unlike the way your eyes can focus on some objects to the exclusion of others. 

Nuheara IQbuds MAX

Nuheara's IQbuds MAX offer what the company calls "focused" hearing via frequency filtering and selectivity from multiple microphones. 

Nuheara

The hearable of Babel 

Language translation is the story behind Waverly Labs' Ambassador smart hearables. These are worn over an ear by two to four people in a conversation, each speaking their own language. Each wearer will hear the conversation in their language and be translated to the other participants. Unlike earbuds, you wear these over your ear, not in it, eliminating the gross-out factor of asking someone to screw a shared device into their ear canal when you want to converse with them. There is noticeable lag in the translation, but it's not much different from that of a human translator who would be a lot more cumbersome and expensive than these small devices that will sell for $199 a pair. 

Bose AR

Bose is a big reason that noise-cancelling headphones are common today and it hopes to create another sea change by adding augmented reality to high-fidelity hearables. Bose AR technology is available in two headphones and confusingly, in glasses called Bose Frames that are neither prescription glasses nor visual augmented reality. 

Bose AR products

Bose AR headphones and glasses can serve audio based on your location and gaze direction. 

Bose

All three devices sense your location and gaze direction to cue specially coded apps to serve audio specific to those factors. Think of traveling to a new city and having a guide app say what you're looking at as you walk, or a golf app uttering tips based on where each shot has taken you on the fairway as you look for your next shot. The number of apps supporting these features is still very limited and Bose AR has yet to appear in an earbud.

Biometric tech where it's welcome

Hearables are arguably the most accepted of all wearables, which has encouraged Valencell to put its biometric sensors there and not just rely on people wearing bands and watches. 

Valencell in-ear blood pressure technology

Valencell uses photoplethysmography to measure small changes in light reflected from varying blood flow to gauge pulse and soon blood pressure.

Valenvell

Valencell's tech can measure heart rate via PPG (photoplethysmography), and later in 2020 will start to measure blood pressure the same way. Rather than use a pressure band or cuff, PPG measures small changes in light reflected from varying blood flow under your skin to extrapolate pulse and blood pressure. The company doesn't make finished hearables but you can find its core technology in products like Bose SoundSport Pulse earbuds.

Listen for AR, don't just look for it

Nobody said augmented reality had to be visual and, unlike AR glasses, this kind of augmentation doesn't require us to wear odd looking things on our faces or stumble around strangely in public. That said, the truly smart hearables market has been slow to expand, struggling with issues of "hearing aid" perception, substantial cost and, in the case of language translation, relative apathy among average consumers. The smart hearable's lesser cousin has, of course, made massive inroads with music playback, call handling and basic noise cancellation, so I have little doubt the next wave will find its footing. When you're next in the market for tech that resides in your ear, make sure you aren't settling for too little of it.