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Why Hearables Could Be the Next Big Thing in Wearable Devices

A new class of wearable device, the hearable, could be the one to finally win over people besides early tech adopters.

Wearables are more than just stuck to your wrist. They're innovative pieces of technology which help their wearers stay fit, track health issues, or protect themselves from danger. And they've taken the tech industry by storm. Last year, smartwatches reached $9 billion in sales, proving they're ripe stomping ground for consumer electronics. But now, a new crop of "hearables," or ear-based wearables that use hearing aid-like wireless technology that fits a microcomputer in your ear canal, is expected to be worth $25 billion by 2019, saturating the fastest growing market in wearables.

"The ear is the new wrist," writes wireless technology expert Nick Hunn. "Earbuds may be simple tech today, but they can stream an endless supply of new music. As they don't rely on a sensor, but are just a carrier of content, the content they supply can remain eternally fresh and compelling—they don't need constantly new and novel applications to keep us hooked."

Hearables are finally gaining steam as the next big thing, as brands like Samsung jumped on board with their cord-free fitness earbuds the IconX, and Apple's wireless headphones, AirPods, which went on sale in December after a two-month delay.

With the iPhone 7 getting rid of the headphone jack, some are eager to point out that wireless Bluetooth headphones are the way of the future. Consequently, there are different types of hearables entering the market, from the hearing aid companies that are syncing their earpieces with wireless devices to the consumer electronics companies that are making wireless earbuds that measure biometrics (measure heart rate, blood pressure or pulse) and speakers that are better than your average Sony headphones.

While big companies like Apple and Samsung are getting into the game, competition is coming from independent, crowdfunded hearables that are quickly filling the market.

Claiming to be "the world's first hearable," Bragi's Dash earbuds are personalized to fit each person's ears, but the general movements are nod to accept a phone call, shake your head to decline. It also has an activity tracker for people running a 5K marathon, for example, and to listen to music with 4GB of storage so you don't have to bring your phone with you everywhere (as the Bluetooth connection can drop out).

Another new hearable is VI, which raised $1.7 million on Kickstarter and calls itself "the first AI personal trainer." The biosensor earbuds, with speech recognition and an app for iOS and Android, puts a pre-recorded fitness coach in your ear which pushes you during workouts to meet your weight loss goals and reviews your progress. It aims to overcome "workout dropout," or laziness, by creating a personal relationship with the user's personalized fitness plans by syncing up with your habits, physiology and exercise data you have stored on your Apple HealthKit, Google Fit, Fitbit or Strava, or any other device you use. Combined with measuring your heart rate, the temperature, motion and the environment with aerospace-grade biosensors, it works to push you beyond your daily routine. Expect to hear motivation from a human voice (rather than a robotic one), which says things like "Let's get to know each other so I can calibrate myself," which is the introduction for the first few training sessions, and "You ran longer than yesterday, way to go!"

But just as all wearables are not just for fitness, neither are all hearables. Some that have yet to be released include the Pilot, a translation app and hearable by New York's Waverly Labs which raised $3.5 million on Indiegogo from over 15,000 backers. This smart earpiece translates languages with voice recognition in real time for the wearer. The translation app is available now for Android while the earbuds are expected by the summer.

And the Earin could be the go-to for music fans, as the high fidelity audio buds from Sweden bring speakers to wireless audio with "memory foam buds" that basically mold to the shape of your ears, so they don't fall out while you're jogging. Meanwhile, the HereOne is a wireless listening system that connects earbuds to an app that allows the regulars, like taking phone calls and noise-cancelling.

The wireless analyst Hunn says one of the biggest challenges is that hearables will need to keep up with an ever-changing market. "Wearables currently ask a lot of the wearer—that they pay good money for it, that they need to charge it, that they need to spend time looking at the data that issues from it, et cetera," he said. "Few have a strong enough compelling experience to hook the customer for more than a few months."