Last year I coined a new term – “Hearables“, for things you put in your ear. Much of what’s happening in that space is being driven by developments in hearing aids. Hearing aids have made immense technical progress since the first electronic ones were introduced to the market over fifty years ago. Few people remember those early ones – they involved large battery packs and amplifiers which people strapped underneath their clothing. But the benefits of better hearing were so great that people were prepared to do that. Today hearing aids are so small that you hardly notice them, whether you’re the wearer or an observer. The technology within them has also made incredible strides. They may contain multiple microphones, which, along with clever digital signal processing lets you focus on sound coming from in front of you, behaving much like your ear. They can also adjust the way they amplify sound to cope with different locations, from noisy streets to the office, restaurants and the home. The amount of technology which has been squeezed into such a small space is incredible, surpassing other high tech products like tablets and phones for the sheer density of electronics.
There’s a new bubble in technology – the wristband. Fuelled by Nike’s success, Jawbone’s on the Up, Polar’s in the Loop, Sony’s trying to Force its way into the game, while Fitbit’s aiming to stay as number One. (If you’ve ever wondered how branding executives choose their product names, that’s how.) Analysts are falling over each other to estimate how large the market will be by 2018. They’re wetting themselves at the prospect of smart watches, seeing the wrist as the saviour of the high tech industry now that smartphones have lost their Shine. (Which has nothing to do with the wrist, but that’s another story.) Currently Credit Suisse holds the prize for unwarranted optimism with a prediction of a market value of up to $50 billion for wearables in 2018. I think they’ve all missed the largest potential market for wearables – a category I’m going to call Hearables. The ear is the new wrist.
Analysts making these predictions almost invariably assume the wearable market is intrinsically linked with the smartphone market – currently around a billion units per year and worth over $250bn. To them, wearable seems to be mostly about smart watches and phones which extend small parts of the phone experience to something we wear. They ignore the fact that we still purchase smartphones to make calls. All of those calls send audio to our ears. As well as voice, hundreds of millions of people use their phones for music, as evidenced by the ubiquitous cables trailing from ears. Sound drives the bulk of our technology use and earbuds are the only piece of wearable tech to have gained ubiquity and social acceptance. These devices are about to undergo a revolution in capability, getting rid of their cables and giving them the opportunity to be the standard bearer for wearable technology.
I’m currently writing a new market forecast report for connected consumer wearable technology. It argues that the biggest potential market for connected wearables will not be for devices we put on our wrists, but the ones we put in our ears. By 2018 it suggests that we’ll be spending over $5billion on Hearables. Let me know if you’d like a copy of the report when it’s complete.