The hearables market is growing fast and is expected to reach over 1.25 billion annual units shipped by 2023. Apple is clearly the leader in the hearables segment. They captured 47% of the market in the second quarter of 2019, a growth of 25% over the previous year. They’re also leading in innovation, introducing active noise cancellation and transparency mode just recently.
In fact, analysts have remarked that hearables is the fastest-growing product segment within Apple. Where Apple goes, more are sure to follow. There is already a wide spectrum of earbuds available and coming soon, from value-priced to premium quality, the premium devices offering high-quality ANC using multi-microphones. They’re also offering, or are signaling that they will, support for further advanced features such as barge-in and fall detection (for seniors). None of these premium features are possible without advanced low-power DSP implementation. And, innovations in Bluetooth are also pointing to new features that support novel use cases.
Bluetooth updates advanced hearable capabilities
The Bluetooth SIG announced at this year’s CES the introduction of LE Audio, a framework that sits on top of version 5.2 of the Bluetooth Core specification and is expected to be ratified later this year.
Version 5.2 of the core spec enables true wireless stereo (TWS) at low power, handling left and right audio channels over separate and synchronized isochronous links, unlike the prior A2DP approach, which transmitted both channels over one link and required forwarding at the earbuds. This new standard also allows for an isochronous voice channel coming back from the earbuds, so you can speak while you’re listening.
LE Audio is positioned as the next generation of Bluetooth audio, beyond Classic Audio. First, it introduces a new high-quality codec (LC3). Additionally, Classic is single-stream, whereas LE Audio allows for multiple streams between multiple devices. You could be listening with multiple sources — laptop, phone, or TV.
LE Audio also supports broadcast — one source can broadcast to many destinations, from a sports bar TV to multiple listeners, or a listener can share her own audio stream directly with multiple friends. Multi-stream and audio sharing are supported through a new Generic Audio Framework (GAF).
The standard will also come with improved control protocol, allowing for richer and non-proprietary operations from the headset. And it’s designed to support interoperability between existing and new products.
Technology convergence will expand our aural universe
Clearly the range of possibilities can now extend far beyond a private high-quality stereo experience. Taking advantage of those possibilities will require convergence of multiple technologies.
When you’re listening beyond the feed from your phone, in potentially very noisy environments (sports bars, airports), you’ll want better active noise cancellation through support for inward-facing microphones to detect and cancel out ambient noise. Or the reverse, transparent mode, where you want to switch to talk to your barista or the checkout clerk at your supermarket.
What about commands? You can use gesture (taps, swipes, etc.) to pick up a call, go transparent, and move to the next song. That requires support for fusion between various sensors. Or you can use voice control and keep your hands free.
Voice is also a good option for a wider range of commands. Recognition can happen on your phone, but you still need low-power voice activity detection and commonly used voice commands in the earbuds, recognizing the trigger word or phrase. Better add that, too.
Naturally, all this capability must be in small size and low power if it’s going to sit inside tiny earbuds with tiny batteries. You’ll need help to build full-featured and competitive solutions for this aural universe. A broad range of solutions to support your development is already available, such as Classic Audio mode and LE Audio mode 5.2 (because it will take time for handsets to migrate to the new standard), active noise cancellation, voice pickup solutions, voice activity detection, and speech recognition. Moreover, there are powerful sensor fusion solutions to manage gesture control and activity classification — all at ultra-low power, ready to be integrated into your products.
You can learn more about Bluetooth, audio, voice, and sensor fusion solutions here.
Published on EEWeb.
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