We’re hurtling toward a future of complete internet immersion. Soon, we will be connected to the web not just by one or two devices on our person...
But a whole array.
It’s projected that by 2020 - not even four short years away - the wearables market will be worth $34 billion.
That’s a 142% increase from the roughly $14 billion it’s worth today.
Estimates are that the average consumer will be outfitted with three to eight wearable devices in the coming years.
To be clear, that's in addition to the standard arsenal of a smartphone, tablet and laptop.
"Hearables companies are currently developing products that aim to both supplement and augment hearing."
In Spike Jonze’s Her, Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with his earpiece — or rather, the female voice inside it. The film depicts a society in which artificially intelligent hearing devices serve as human companions.
A cliché for the hearablesfuture, Her nonetheless raises several key issues regarding the increasingly saturated industry of ear-worn wearables that must be resolved — not only to prevent an isolated world in which people become increasingly obsessed with their trinkets but also to herald the advancement of hearable technologies that will perhaps even be capable of their own self-reflection and introspection.
Reshaping The Stigma
The lonely future portrayed in Her is exactly what hearable technology should not evolve into. Yet, it reinforces how people generally perceive these earpieces — isolating and potentially embarrassing. We’ve already seen (and joked about) them with early iterations of the Bluetooth headset — this clunky, protruding device gave an almost comical impression that one was talking to oneself. It also attempted to standardize hearable technology, an effort to combat the existing stigma of isolation and introversion exuded through headphones and earphones.
Bluetooth headsets introduced the world to the potential of hearables, but the stigma is still there and especially present in health devices, such as hearing aids. They give the impression that the user is immersed in their own world; they’re perceived as socially awkward.
I was into wearables before there was Google Glass, Apple Watch, or the Moto 360. I was into them before cheap devices told you how much you had walked, run, slept, or eaten. In fact, I’ve been into them for so long now that I’m not quite sure when it started. I think it was around when I was five, in 1986.
The wearables I started wearing as a kid and still wear today are hearing aids—or, as my audiologist euphemistically calls them, "amplification devices." Although many will never need hearing aids, today’s tech firms are making it likely that, someday soon, tiny computers will become extensions of your body, just as they have been part of mine for nearly 30 years. Thanks to that experience, I feel as though I’ve had a sneak peek into our wearable future—and I can make some predictions about what it will look like.
To be fair, hearing aids are quite different from the current array of consumer wearables. Hearing aids are medical devices designed to make up for a physical impairment. By contrast, consumer wearables like the Apple Watch are luxury items that let us read text messages and measure our fitness. This distinction has legal significance: The FDA tightly regulates any device that tries to either diagnose or treat a medical condition. That means certain features are unlikely to ever exist in a consumer wearable, unless Tim Cook wants to sell watches that require a doctor’s prescription.
But despite initial appearances, both medical and consumer wearables share a few important goals.
Broadly speaking, both types of wearables aim to fill gaps in human capacity. As Sara Hendren aptly put it, "all technology is assistive technology." While medical devices fill gaps created by disability or illness, consumer wearables fill gaps created by being human. For example, evolution hasn’t given us brain wifi, yet.