What's a hearable? It is a wearable for your ears. What's a wearable? Take glasses. They have become such a fashion statement that nobody looks down their nose at someone who wears them, even though they are essentially medical devices that correct a physical problem. And almost everybody wears sunglasses to cut the glare and brightness on sunny days. People are happy to augment, assist, protect or filter their eyes. Glasses really were the first wearable.
It’s different with our ears and hearing. People don’t want to augment or assist; traditionally they have been embarrassed by the idea of hearing aids, because as one study noted, “for many people a hearing aid is an unwelcome reminder of the aging process, one that they simply cannot accept.” So while there might be 75 million boomers, half of which could probably benefit from wearing some kind of assisting device, only 20 percent of them actually do. It’s hard to sell something to people who have to be dragged kicking and screaming into some medical-ish office to buy a product they don’t want.
So screw’em. There is another demographic that is even larger, the millennials, all 75.4 million of them between ages 18 and 34, and they are not at all embarrassed about sticking things in their ears. Everybody wears headphones or earbuds, and are clamouring for wireless earbuds; that’s why so many of these kinds of devices blow through their Kickstarter goals so quickly- there is a pent-up demand for this. (I have written about a few failures on MNN)
That’s also why the IQbuds from Nuheara are so interesting. They are wireless earbuds that connect to your smartphone and play music or take calls, but they do a lot more than that. Its co-founders came from Sensear, an Australian company that builds industrial hearing protection that happens to have sophisticated noise suppression, speech enhancement and bluetooth communications. It’s also industrial size and price.
NuHeara has applied the shrink ray on the Sensear concept, fitting it all into a small unit that can fit in your ear. They call it an “Intelligent hearing device, Bluetooth earpiece, noise cancelling headset- all in 2 wireless earbuds. No more cables, Nuheara IQbuds will enable a hands-free connection to your digital devices while controlling how you hear the world around you.”
Co-founder David Cannington is doing a Magical Listening Tour and is in Toronto for a wearable workshop. We met in a noisy sidewalk café so that I could test the IQbuds prototype. I should note that I am already in the hearable space, wearing wonderful Starkey Halo hearables that connect to my phone and the world around me. I could go on for days about how wonderful this always on, always connected world is; as Nick Hunn, inventor of the word Hearables noted, "Forget wristbands – The ear is the new wrist." However my Halos are expensive and are considered medical devices, and are fitted by an audiologist.
But they also give me a good feel for what a hearable can do. The IQbuds are big and obvious, but are much easier to install; stick it in your ear and turn. They are easier to adjust; just tap them. At first they are a bit disconcerting; the tip is “closed”, sealing your ear from outside sound. The tips I choose for my Halos are “open”- full of holes to let ambient sound in. But it’s harder to get good bass in open mode.
But then you tap them and get straight amplification and it sounds pretty good. Tap them again and the magic really starts; they are designed to pick out voice frequencies and mask the ambient background noise. The street noise and the people at the next table are a lot less obvious. At one point a fire truck turned the corner right beside us and I could still hear David talk perfectly. I should note that without my Halos on I could not get through a meal like this without a few pardons and a lot of leaning forward, but I could hear David perfectly well. Through the course of the lunch I kept switching between my Halos and the IQbuds to really get a sense of how good these were at making it easy to hold a conversation, and to determine which was better.
In the end, I have to say the Halos had the edge. But the Halos are medical devices, and I paid the audiologist almost as much to set them as the $299 it is projected to cost to buy the IQbuds.
The IQbuds are not hearing aids. They are not marketed as hearing aids, which would be illegal and would get the FCC medieval on their heads. They are marketed to young people listening to music in gyms, relying on noise cancellation and masking in crowded bars or airplanes, or speech amplification during dinner parties to pick up that person at the end of the table.
They also only run for a couple of hours on a charge, whereas I am used to my Halos running for almost a week on zinc-air batteries. They are not a substitute for a real hearing aid that can be worn all day by people who need them all day.
But they could be a gateway drug. The two biggest factors limiting the use of hearing aids are stigma and price. But if all the cool kids are wearing them, stigma disappears. And if they come to market at a crazy cheap $ 299 then the price barrier is gone. The hearing aid companies work so hard to make their products invisible, matching the case colour to skin colour, hiding behind the ear: Let's get small and disappear is the design goal. But that is no longer true in the wearable world; instead it is a fashion and status statement. This is no superficial and shallow consideration when you are talking about issues like this.
So while all the marketing says one thing, I suspect that the real market will be that giant 75 million strong boomer brigade. Here’s a fresh video of someone not exactly a millennial and his reaction:
You can get them even cheaper during their Indiegogo campaign, where they are being offered at $199. But don’t worry about whether the crowdfunding is what is driving this business; they have raised the money they need already with investors and the Australian stock market. Unlike that cooler with a blender on top, these are cheap at twice the price.
More at Nuheara and at Indiegogo, which closes around June 6.