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On the ever-changing personal technology landscape, a new class of devices is emerging: “hearables”, or smart earbuds and headphones, and smart speakers, such as Amazon’s Echo. Both use artificial intelligence to allow users to communicate with machines by voice, and have multiple uses, generally working in tandem with virtual assistants like Siri and Cortana. Analysts predict a sizable market, and competition is heating up among technology companies worldwide.
By Boyden

On the ever-changing personal technology landscape, a new class of devices is emerging: “hearables”, or smart earbuds and headphones, and smart speakers, such as Amazon’s Echo. Both use artificial intelligence to allow users to communicate with machines by voice, and have multiple uses, generally working in tandem with virtual assistants like Siri and Cortana. Analysts predict a sizable market, and competition is heating up among technology companies worldwide.

Unlike older wireless headphones, the new generation of smart ear devices solve the problem of poor wireless connections. They also include components such as processors, microphones and sensors with accelerometers, heart-rate monitor and GPS receiver. These enable numerous capabilities, such as reading gestures and tuning out noise, in addition to storing music and tracking the user’s activity.

Despite a somewhat rocky pre-release last month, Apple’s new AirPods are expected to do well, though the market for them will be small, says research firm CCS Insight. Apple has also lagged competitors such as Germany’s Bragi, which released its smart headphone device, Dash, earlier this year. Doppler Labs, an American firm, is also leading the pack with its Here One earbuds. Hearables are a natural fit for communicating with virtual assistants like Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana.

In the smart speaker category, Amazon’s Echo has been a surprise hit, with more than 3 million units expected to be sold this year and 10 million in 2017. One reason for this rapid adoption, The Economist reports, is that “Amazon has turned Alexa, its digital assistant, into a ‘platform’: a set of services that other developers can combine to build a ‘skill', the equivalent of an app on a smartphone.”

Of course, other tech heavyweights will not be left out. At its October 4 media event, Google gave the latest news on its forthcoming Google Home smart speakers, scheduled for release in early November. Not surprisingly, Apple is also said to have smart speakers in the pipeline – as do China’s Baidu and South Korea’s Samsung, among others.

As personal technology proliferates, business is also bubbling up around hardware. American chip maker Qualcomm, for example, has already developed a circuit board that makes it easy to build smart speakers. Martin Garner of CCS Insight postulates that players that offer the best voice service will win. Of a similar mind, Baidu chief scientist Andrew Ng said of the devices, “As accuracy of speech recognition goes from 95% to 99%, all of us…will go from barely using it to using it all the time”.

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