What are hearable and what problems could they help solve?

10-09-2021 | By Sam Brown

We cover wearable devices a lot on Electropages, but another kind of technology called hearables could also play a key role in future technology. What are hearables, what challenges do they face, and what problems could they help solve?

What are hearables?

Wearable devices are frequently in the news, whether it be the development of new flexible electronics or a power source that could help to provide constant power. However, there exists another type of device that could be considered worn called a hearable device.

A hearable device provides advanced functions and integrates a speaker and microphones. Such devices would most likely be worn in the ear as the speaker needs to be close to the user’s ear, but this is not always required. For example, bone vibration technologies can pass sound to the inner ear by vibrating the skull and/or temple.

It should be understood and noted that not all electronic devices fitted in the ear classify as wearable devices. For example, wireless earbuds that connect a user’s smartphone would not be counted as hearable as they are simply an extension to the smartphone device. The same applies to glasses with built-in headphones that connect wirelessly to a smartphone or computer. A hearable would integrate all the technology needed to provide services and potentially run AI tasks.

What challenges do hearables face?

Hearables face some of the same challenges faced by wearables but are also subject to others. However, while wearables suffer from user comfortability, hearables can be ridged by design. This is because such devices would most likely be worn in the ear and need to be held firmly in place. Wearables instead are designed to be worn like clothing, and thus any ridged wearable is uncomfortable to some degree.

Hearable devices most likely have a tiny footprint meaning that technology needs to be densely packed. This will affect the computational performance of the device as only small ICs will fit, which is made worse when considering that the same device also has to integrate a speaker, microphone, and sensor(s).

The next challenge faced by hearables is power; a small device mounted in or near the ear can only be so large and, therefore, limited battery size. This limitation affects what the device can do and how long that device can operate. Thus, the small battery size limits the maximum performance of the device.

Hearables can also face challenges from weight; creating a hearable device that is very heavy could put pressure on the ear. As such, a hearable device needs to reduce its weight as much as possible, and this weight reduction often results in a reduction in battery size and processing capability.

What challenges could hearables solve?

Wearable technology has a long way to go, and it is unlikely that true wearable devices will be commercially available by the end of the decade. Of course, there are wearable devices available (such as smartwatches), but these are based on bulky technology, making them uncomfortable to wear and heavy.

Hearables, however, could be the stepping stone to genuinely wearable devices. While researchers continue to develop flexible electronics, hearables could provide users with the portability and convenience needed. Wireless earbuds already exist and can connect to smartphones and other devices, meaning that small in-ear technology can already be developed. Improvements in battery technology and smaller integrated circuits could readily see small devices be fitted in the ear that can provide more advanced functions such as text messages, web search results, and health monitoring.

If technology cannot be shrunk down enough to make practical in-ear devices, then bone conducting hearing could play a significant role. Such a device could be physically larger and essentially stuck onto the side of the skull. This would enable users to hear their devices privately while being physically large enough for larger batteries and better processors.

Overall, hearables are arguably a more viable solution to body-worn devices and sensors compared to wearable devices in clothes and on the wrist.

By Sam Brown