Ears Follow Eyes as Target in $1.84 Billion Wearable BoomOlga Kharif
Google Inc. is going after consumers’ eyes with its Glass Internet spectacles, and Samsung Electronics Co. went for the wrist with its Galaxy Gear smartwatch. Iriver Inc. is seeking to connect another body part: the ear.
Last month, Iriver released a headset in the U.S. with a Tic-Tac-sized sensor that shines light into the ear to track a user’s heart rate, distance and speed traveled, and calories burned. Startup Looxcie Inc. sells an ear-mounted camera, and other ear-based devices have been patented by the likes of Intel Corp. and Samsung, or developed by researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Keio University.
Wearables are poised to take off as consumers seek new ways to weave technology into everyday life and as big companies like Google and Apple Inc. join the fray, more than tripling the market to about $30 billion by 2018, according to IHS Global Insights. Ear wearables alone should reach $1.84 billion in 2016, according to WinterGreen Research Inc. Using the ear may have advantages over the eyes and wrist, especially for fitness and health-care applications, because blood vessels there can enable more accurate biometric measurements, said Owen Kwon, vice president of Iriver USA.
“Voice is the most common way to communicate, so wearable computers will have strong growth based on ear-insert capability,” said Susan Eustis, an analyst at WinterGreen. “Ear-based wearables are destined to be able to receive voice communication and to have music as part of the wearable computer.”
Startups like Iriver, Looxcie and Valencell Inc. are angling to find a new niche in a market for wearable computing. Iriver’s $200 ON device is worn around the back of the neck with connected earbuds. Google Glass is set to go on sale next year, and is likely to be in demand among business users. Samsung’s Galaxy Gear smartwatch became available on Sept. 25, to mixed reviews.
In the coming years, each consumer may carry around three to eight wearable computing gadgets -- in addition to a phone, tablet and laptop, said Mike Payne, director of experience design lab at Intel Labs.
“We are going to see wearables on all parts of the body,” Payne said. The wearable computing-device market should rise to 485 million annual shipments by 2018, according to ABI Research.
Manufacturers are still trying to determine which kinds of devices will be the most popular with consumers and for which applications -- and ear wearables are among their top bets.
In addition to providing sharper biometric feedback, ear-based devices may be better at hearing users’ voice commands through bone conduction -- receiving the wearer’s voice as it’s conducted through the skull -- and the devices could then whisper responses right back into their owners’ ears. What’s more, humans are already used to wearing technology such as Bluetooth wireless headsets and hearing aids, possibly helping ear-based computing devices to enter the mainstream faster.
“We want to introduce something now that’s not only a new concept but also performs the best,” Iriver’s Kwon said in an interview. “This is a new category that we are moving in.”
A runner, for example, can connect Iriver’s ON to his phone and insert the headset into his ear canals. During the run, the device captures the user’s heart rate, calories burned, total time and other metrics -- all while also playing music through the earphones. The device’s voice-feedback system notifies users, by speaking into their ears, of what heart-rate zone they’re in, and whether they reached their calorie goals. The data is also sent to a smartphone app in real time for later review.
“The ear was one of the first places where we put wearable technology,” said Sean Madden, executive managing director at gadget-innovation consultant Ziba Design. “It’s a very viable place for a device to live.”
Ear-based gadgets are also different from Glass and Gear because they can be almost invisible, an attribute that might appeal to people who don’t want their devices to draw attention.
“The current trend is to hide the technology,” said John Edson, president of design consultancy Lunar. “The ear is a nice place to hide electronics.”
That means that aural-based devices will make for a big piece of the growing market for connected wearable devices. WinterGreen, in Lexington, Massachusetts, estimates that technologies for the ear will account for 23 percent of the wearable electronics market in 2016, up from 3 percent last year.
Going up against Samsung and Google, established companies that have a head start in the market, won’t be easy. There are 225 serious wearable computer-product companies, and only 9 of those have measurable market share, according to WinterGreen. And even the biggest companies in the field have yet to introduce a highly successful product.
“We are right now in the Gold Rush phase of wearables -- everybody heard there’s some gold and is rushing in, but hasn’t found it yet,” said Roger Entner, an analyst at Recon Analytics LLC. “Samsung is trying to do a watch, and it’s underwhelming. There are hundreds of companies that are trying to do this.” He said weight and battery life have been the main obstacles in creating viable wearable devices.
The initial experimentation with ear-based devices started in academia and company labs. In 2005, Intel patented a “tactile kinesthetic assistant,” which can include a thimble that can scan a word on a page and send a request for information, and an ear piece that can deliver an answer, such as a dictionary definition of a word, by whispering it into the user’s ear. Two years later, Samsung patented an ear device for measuring biological signals such as temperature, respiration and pulse.
Meantime, researchers at Cambridge, Massachusetts-based MIT have created prototypes of a vital-signs monitor that sits behind the ear and measures heart and respiratory rates. Researchers at Japan’s Keio University have built an ear-based device that tracks food intake by using an embedded microphone to listen to sounds of chewing and belching.
Now, these devices are starting to show up in stores in greater numbers. Looxcie released its first ear-based video camera in 2010, and though it’s begun offering a variety of alternate ways to carry the $100-and-up camera -- mounted on the head, or clipped to a cap -- ear mounts remain one of the most popular options with men, said founder Romulus Pereira. The company’s sales have doubled every year for the past three years, he said, though he declined to disclose details.
“The ears are a very convenient place, because they are the one part of your body that tilts and pans to where you are looking at,” Pereira said. “Life requires both hands, frequently. Glasses and the wrist have become the poster child for exploring wearability. Behind this poster child is a whole population of things.”
Founded by three engineers in 2006, Valencell is another startup aiming to unveil a slew of fitness and health-related devices that sit in the ears. The company has created a sensor module that fits within ear buds and measures blood flow by shining light into the ear. It already licenses the technology for Iriver’s headset, and expects to announce other customers soon. Valencell projects it will sell sensors into more than 100,000 units of final products in the first year, President Steven LeBoeuf said.
“The ear is amazing,” LeBoeuf said, “You can measure everything that matters.”