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Google Assistant-powered earbuds: Get ready for a flood of new models

Qualcomm is making it easier for companies to build smart headsets. But you still need to push a button to call on the digital assistant.

Qualcomm's smart headset platform is designed to let companies quickly and easily make Google Assistant-powered earbuds. 

Your next pair of earbuds may be a lot smarter -- and cheaper -- thanks to efforts by Qualcomm and Google.

Qualcomm on Thursday said it has created a smart headset platform that works with the Google Assistant and Google Fast Pair. The company's reference design, which uses Qualcomm's low-power Bluetooth audio chips, is meant to make it fast and easy for companies to create their own headsets and earbuds that use Google's digital assistant.

"This simplifies the route for customers to get this kind of capability onto headsets," said Chris Havell, senior director of product marketing in Qualcomm's voice and music group. "You get much wider choice in terms of headsets that have Google Assistant functionality in them."

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Qualcomm made the announcement Thursday as part of the Google I/O developer conference. It follows a similar announcement from October, when Qualcomm said it had created a Bluetooth smart headset reference design for Amazon's Alexa voice assistant. And it echoes efforts by Apple with its Siri-powered AirPods. Apple's earbuds, launched in late 2016, have become popular with users and have spawned numerous rivals. 

Google, Amazon, Apple, Samsung and other tech heavyweights are investing in digital assistants because they're heralded as the future of how we'll interact with our gadgets. People aren't just typing on computers to find information but instead are talking to their smartphones and smart speakers. The ultimate promise for the artificial intelligence technology is to predict what you want before you even ask -- but in most cases, the digital assistants just aren't smart enough yet. 

A smarter smart assistant

In the case of Google, its Assistant is now on 1 billion devices, mostly because it comes preinstalled on phones running Android, the world's most popular mobile operating system. 

Google this week previewed the "next-generation" of its Assistant during its developer confab. The Google Assistant can now deliver answers up to 10 times faster than it did before, the company said. A big boost of speed could help turn around the perception that voice assistants are too laggy and inaccurate. Google Assistant also is a lot smarter, and it's getting more personal. You'll be able to add family members to a list of close contacts. When you ask the Assistant for directions to your mom's house, for instance, it knows who your mom is and where she lives. 

The reference design Qualcomm has built is earbuds connected by a neckband. The company said that's generally the least expensive version of smart earbuds that companies can make. It needs only one chip that can drive both headphones, unlike fully wireless models, like Apple's AirPods, that need a Bluetooth chip, battery and other components in each earbud. 

"All the things you could do on your smart speaker at home on your Google Home Hub, you can do with your headset on the go," Qualcomm's Havell said in an interview ahead of Google I/O

The earbuds made using Qualcomm's technology still will require users to push a button to call on the digital assistant. That's to save battery life, Havell said. 

But Apple's updated AirPods, released earlier this year, feature always-on Siri. The digital assistant will respond to commands spoken out loud. No need to tap on an AirPod to wake Siri up. 

Qualcomm said it's already working with customers on Google Assistant-powered earbuds. The first models will likely hit the market in the early second half of 2019. 

CNET's Rich Nieva contributed to this report.