There’s a new reality headed to town and it’s not the visual kind: virtual reality, mixed reality, Google glasses or their kin. This new extended reality will be through your ears and it promises much, much more than simply wireless earphones. Multiple technologies are converging to make what we hear, from our connected devices and from the environment around us, as selectable and manageable an experience as our visual experience.
Start with the basics. True Wireless Stereo (TWS) earbuds are now a reality. Earlier-generation devices depended on left and right channels being forwarded through a single wireless channel to one earbud, say the left; that earbud then had to forward the other audio channel to the right earbud. Delay between left and right channels compromised the stereo experience so makers built proprietary solutions to mitigate the problem. These are better but not perfect, since they are captive to phone models and forwarding reduces battery lifetime. TWS fixes stereo the right way, left and right channels each connecting directly to the source. No latency, low power consumption and no phone model restrictions.
Add in active noise cancellation, using in-earbud mics to detect and cancel background noise, all to improve the quality of what you hear. The kind of quality you expect to get with over-the-ear headsets.
How about expanding further on that experience, through 3D audio? First, you hear a helicopter in front of you, then it’s overhead, then it flies off into the distance behind you. Imagine how this kind of audio could enhance videos, podcasts and gaming.
Audio Fitness and Health
On a completely different track, an interesting battle may emerge in fitness and health monitoring. The current focus for these wearables has settled on the wrist, particularly given the progress Apple has been making with their watch. But the wrist isn’t an ideal place for these functions. It moves frequently for reasons unrelated to exercise and it’s on the periphery of the body, not as ideal as it could be for measuring health factors. Devices in the ear don’t suffer as much from irregular movements and are closer to central and critical body functions.
Transparently Switch from Private to Public Worlds
Won’t wearing earbuds all the time increase our isolation from the real world? Not at all. Why not be able to switch easily from music or a phone call to talk to the barista or the checkout guy at the supermarket, without having to remove your earbuds. Not only do you not have to take them out, they can actually enhance your hearing in a noisy environment, through better directional pickup and noise suppression. We might find we’d all like that kind of hearing enhancement, even if we’re not hearing impaired.
If you don’t like the idea of wearing earbuds all the time, wearable audio frames to go with your prescription or sunglass lenses are another option. Check out Amazon Echo Frames as an example. Open ear speakers direct sound to your ears and are designed to minimize any chance of others overhearing.
No Buttons or Screens
If you’re wondering how we’re going to control all these functions, we already have tap and voice control. Gesture detection (head movements and others) is coming soon. The HMI for aural is going to be a lot less fiddly than for watches. This is all enabled by sensor fusion, now able to fit in these tiny devices. Gesture recognition can already pickup taps on an earbud and can also pickup head movements. Sound conduction through bone can be used for voice activity detection (VAD), the starting point in recognizing wake words.
These capabilities are here today or coming soon. And they’ll ride on the back of an already rapidly growing market. Earbuds are now the biggest wearable segment, capturing 47% of the overall wearables market in Q2 2019, up from 25% just a year ago. Apple Airpods are the current market leader with over half the market share. And Apple are driving a lot of new features (they introduced active noise control only a couple of months ago). All of which points to our ears becoming the next big wearable focus, for entertainment, communication, health – leaping ahead of watches.
CEVA has a rich line of technologies for building products in this new aural universe: sensor fusion for gestures and VAD, BLE and dual-mode Bluetooth, all-in-one signal processing and control for IoT applications, voice processing software to enhance to voice clarity in pickup, speech recognition and a smart and connected platform for development of audio and sensing solutions.