ReadWriteBody is an ongoing series where ReadWrite covers networked fitness and the quantified self.
It seems fashionable for audiophiles to beat up on Beats, the music-accessories business by Dr. Dre that Apple is reportedly interested in buying. But debating sound quality seems beside the point. I think Apple is placing a bet on a whole new category of electronics. Call it earable computers.
Earable computers, or earables, will look like existing audio accessories—earbuds, headphones, and the like. The inexorable trend towards miniaturization and wireless connectivity will mean that these devices will soon untether themselves from smartphones and connect us to news, entertainment, and people on their own.
The Ear Up There
Like other wearable devicess, earables will be attached to the body. I’d argue that they have more market potential than, say, smartwatches, which aren’t for everyone. They definitely have more appeal than so-called “face computers” like Google Glass, which has proven to be awkward and embarrassing and may ultimately prove socially unacceptable to use outside of limited industrial settings.
But headphones are everywhere. Almost everyone uses some kind of ear bud with other devices to play music and take phone calls. The question is what else these devices can do.
A recent rumor about Apple adding fitness features to its EarPods, though debunked, pointed to something quite real: Apple’s EarPods already have a chip in the built-in remote. Devices attached to our ears could do a lot that we rely on smartphones for, like carry alerts and notifications. Earables could sense the condition of our body, picking up biological signals like heart rate through our skin.
I’ve seen several fitness-related devices with some kind of ear interface. Pear Sports, for example, makes its own custom earphones with a controller that will give real-time heart-rate information, while its app feeds training cues through the speakers.
Siri Inside Beats?
The most fascinating product inside the Beats portfolio are its Studio Wireless Headphones. With Bluetooth connectivity and a digital processor for noise cancellation, this headset already is a connected computing device—albeit one with very limited functions.
Add Apple’s M7 coprocessor, though, and it could track your steps. Add a full-fledged processor and a voice-controlled Siri, and you could ask questions and get answers. Today, Bluetooth devices must be tethered to a smartphone, but the wireless technology is evolving quickly, and soon smart gadgets will be able to talk to each other. That means my Bluetooth heart-rate monitor could whisper the pounding of my own heart into my ears as I work out. My beats on my Beats, if you will.
The potential is unlimited—which is why Apple’s interest in Beats isn’t limited to its nascent streaming music service, I believe. Apple has long understood the power of audio in all forms. By upending industry groupthink and focusing its effort on earables, Apple could create a whole new category of consumer electronics—again.