In-ear computing: The hearables heralding the dawn of a screen-free future

Hearables have been touted as the next big thing for wearables for some time, but will they really have a meaningful impact on our lives? We hear from Bragi CMO Jarrod Jordan about how the technology could transform the way we communicate

For the past few decades, computing has advanced at an incredible pace. Within a single generation we’ve gone from cumbersome desktops to devices that are effectively pocket-sized supercomputers, so it comes as no surprise that technology manufacturers and consumers alike are hungry for the next step.

For many this step is known as ‘the fourth platform’: something that takes us beyond our current screen-based lives, and pushes computing and communication seamlessly into the background.

And while we’re quite not there yet, hearables may very well be that something.

“The hearable is actually the precipice of the very beginning of the start of fourth-platform computing, where people can put a device inside of their ear, they can actually become more productive, they can move more places and they can do more things,” explains Jarrod Jordan, CMO of Bragi, speaking at the Wearable Technology Show.

“This isn’t just happening five years from now; we are talking about 18 months from now, it’s starting to become more and more prominent. People are starting to look at this in the same way they did when they were looking at, for example, when the iPhone first came out.”

Bragi is arguably in a very good place for this oncoming breakthrough. The Germany-based company is behind one of the first true hearables, the Dash, which has developed from a Kickstarter success story back in 2014 to a fully fledged product now available in stores. And with an SDK (software development kit) to allow third-parties to develop apps for the device on its way, it has all the makings of a truly useful device.

Beyond the tethered smartphone

Wearable technology has long been touted as a game-changing space from which the next generation of computing will come, but so far much of what’s been developed has failed to live up to that claim. Most devices remain entirely reliant on smartphones, making them more peripherals to existing devices rather than a technology that truly pushes things forwards in their own right.

Images courtesy of Bragi

Which begs the question: what does a true fourth-platform device need to offer?

“A few things need to happen in order for that fourth platform to exist, or to have that device or item exist on the fourth platform,” Jordan explains. “It has to make the user more integrated into real-world scenarios; it has to make the user be more productive and it has to be automated to help them with predictive behaviours – in other words it has to start doing things on behalf of the user without the user having to think about it.”

For some, virtual reality could be that platform, but Jordan argues that it so far fails to achieve these goals.

“As much as I love it as a form of entertainment, the idea that you have an integration with the real world, or that you can become automated or more productive with a device currently over your head [is wrong],” he says. “[VR] actually brings you out of the world and distracts you from what’s happening around you.”

Another option is the voice-enabled devices such as Amazon Echo, which are arguably much closer to being true fourth-platform devices, but fail in that they are typically in fixed locations with little ability to gather data about their users.

“What’s great about this is it does do a lot of the things I just mentioned: you can actually walk in the room and get things ordered, you can have things turn on or turn off etc,” Jordan says. “But there’s a couple of things: it doesn’t actually integrate with you as a human, it doesn’t understand what your body or your biometrics are telling it and it can go with you but it doesn’t travel with you per se.”

The logical step for some, then, is implanted computers. They’re always there, they can gather data and provide unseen feedback and assistance and they don’t need to rely on a smartphone. But they come with a rather significant problem: how many of us are really up for having tech surgically implanted inside us?

“To a lot of people that bothers them; it even bothers me,” says Jordan. “I don’t necessarily want a device inside of me, but I do need a device that can somehow get inside of me, grab different parts of my biometrics and help me become more productive or more active.”

When does a headphone become a hearable?

For Jordan, true fourth-platform devices will combine the best of these nearly-there technologies into something consumers will actually want to use.

“The way I look at it, there are three ways that these things need to come together to make that fourth platform,” he says. “It needs to be embedded yet detachable: I think if it’s inside of you then that’s a problem, I just don’t think adoption of that by the masses is really there.

It needs to leverage multiple sensors so it’s not only voice, it’s not only eyes, it’s not only touch: its taking in several different components of your body and being able to give output from that

“It needs to leverage multiple sensors so it’s not only voice, it’s not only eyes, it’s not only touch: its taking in several different components of your body and being able to give output from that. It needs to be able to augment your behaviour and predict your behaviour as well.”

Hearables, he argues, are this device, although he is keen to stress that not all technology you can put in your ears is really a true hearable.

“It is not as simply a truly wireless in-ear device. Many of them are excellent: wonderful sound, fun to use etc but they are not a computer,” he explains.

“If you cannot update your device with firmware, just like you get with your iPhone through those OS updates, if you cannot do that with your hearable it is not by definition a hearable. It is a headphone and it may be excellent, it may be fun to use, but not exactly a hearable.

“The second thing is it must be intelligent; the device must be able to pick up what you are doing and give you a feedback loop in order to make you more productive.”

Bragi Dash: in-ear computers

Whether Bragi’s own device, the Dash, fulfils these needs will ultimately be decided by its users, but it does make a compelling case. Because while the Dash looks like just a regular set of wireless earbuds, it is in fact a complete computer in two parts, housed entirely inside the minimal casing.

“We did not go out to build headphones. We actually went out to build in-ear computers; a binary computer, with a left and right side allowing us to make even more datasets and even more predictions,” says Jordan.

“In the building a device we were challenged – first of all we had nanotechnology: how do we push all of these things into very, very little space? We put 27 sensors inside of our device, we put infrared, we put accelerometers, a gyroscope, a 32 bit processor and a 4GB hard drive all in a thing the size of a dime that sits inside your ear.”

And that means that Dash can do pretty much all the things you’d expect from conventional wearable technology, without needing to hook up to a phone or plant sensors across your body.

We did not go out to build headphones. We actually went out to build in-ear computers; a binary computer, with a left and right side allowing us to make even more datasets and even more predictions

“We have tracking heart rate, respiration, acceleration, temperature, rotation, absolute direction: all of these types of things can be gathered through the device. All of those things can also be gathered and put into datasets,” he says.

“You have a headset that functions similarly to how you make normal telephone calls. You have an earphone microphone – that means the microphone is actually inside your ear not outside. You have noise cancellation with audio transparency: that means that you can hear the world around you as well as what’s in your device, so you’re actually able to have an augmented situation there. Speech control in the ambient microphone: again, those are things that allow you to sit there and make things more productive.”

Dash also solves the interaction problem – usually in-ear wearables rely on smartphones – with a mixture of gestures and voice commands.

“Right now on our device you can actually nod your head and answer a call. You can say no and reject that call. You can shake your head three times and make music shuffle; you can double tap your face twice and say ’tell me how to get home’ and the device will tell you how to get home,” Jordan explains.

But that’s not all Bragi has planned for the device. The company is already working with IBM Watson and several automotive companies to build on the Dash’s capabilities, and hopes to be able to utilise the data collected to significantly advance how the device can help you in your day to day life.

“We are collecting biometric data: we know your red-and-white blood cell counts; we know your difference between your scared heart rate and your nervous heart rate and your exercise induced heart rate,” he says. “We can see the difference between all of those so we can actually look to a world where we can start to build apps on top of those behaviours to allow you to then become more productive based on exactly what’s happening with your body, as well as starting to predict what may happen to you in the future.”

A post-screen world

The true promise of hearables lies in their ability to interact with the increasingly connected world around us, and remove many of the increasingly prevalent screens that are carving through our lives. Computers would remain ever-present, but in a manner that would be less intrusive, and more able to respond to our needs without us needing to tell them to.

“By integrating with you and into the Internet of Things, think about all those gestures, think about all that biofeedback you’re getting, and imagine being able to control the devices around you,” Jordan enthuses. “So you yourself become the trackpad.

“Imagine being able to walk into a room and simply control the devices. Let’s say you walk home and you just lift your arms up and the lights turn on, a double snap and a little Barry White starts playing.

“Your temperature is high, you’re on your way home and all of a sudden that air conditioner at home knows to turn on. You can do things that are very different by having the computer integrated into you.”

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World-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking has died at the age of 76. When Hawking was diagnosed with motor neurone disease aged 22, doctors predicted he would live just a few more years. But in the ensuing 54 years he married, kept working and inspired millions of people around the world. In his last few years, Hawking was outspoken of the subject of AI, and Factor got the chance to hear him speak on the subject at Web Summit 2017…

Stephen Hawking was often described as being a vocal critic of AI. Headlines were filled with predictions of doom by from scientist, but the reality was more complex.

Hawking was not convinced that AI was to become the harbinger of the end of humanity, but instead was balanced about its risks and rewards, and at a compelling talk broadcast at Web Summit, he outlined his perspectives and what the tech world can do to ensure the end results are positive.

Stephen Hawking on the potential challenges and opportunities of AI

Beginning with the potential of artificial intelligence, Hawking highlighted the potential level of sophistication that the technology could reach.

“There are many challenges and opportunities facing us at this moment, and I believe that one of the biggest of these is the advent and impact of AI for humanity,” said Hawking in the talk. “As most of you may know, I am on record as saying that I believe there is no real difference between what can be achieved by a biological brain and what can be achieved by a computer.

“Of course, there is unlimited potential for what the human mind can learn and develop. So if my reasoning is correct, it also follows that computers can, in theory, emulate human intelligence and exceed it.”

Moving onto the potential impact, he began with an optimistic tone, identifying the technology as a possible tool for health, the environment and beyond.

“We cannot predict what we might achieve when our own minds are amplified by AI. Perhaps with the tools of this new technological revolution, we will be able to undo some of the damage done to the natural world by the last one: industrialisation,” he said.

“We will aim to finally eradicate disease and poverty; every aspect of our lives will be transformed.”

However, he also acknowledged the negatives of the technology, from warfare to economic destruction.

“In short, success in creating effective AI could be the biggest event in the history of our civilisation, or the worst. We just don’t know. So we cannot know if we will be infinitely helped by AI, or ignored by it and sidelined or conceivably destroyed by it,” he said.

“Unless we learn how to prepare for – and avoid – the potential risks, AI could be the worst event in the history of our civilisation. It brings dangers like powerful autonomous weapons or new ways for the few to oppress the many. It could bring great disruption to our economy.

“Already we have concerns that clever machines will be increasingly capable of undertaking work currently done by humans, and swiftly destroy millions of jobs. AI could develop a will of its own, a will that is in conflict with ours and which could destroy us.

“In short, the rise of powerful AI will be either the best or the worst thing ever to happen to humanity.”

In the vanguard of AI development

In 2014, Hawking and several other scientists and experts called for increased levels of research to be undertaken in the field of AI, which he acknowledged has begun to happen.

“I am very glad that someone was listening to me,” he said.

However, he argued that there is there is much to be done if we are to ensure the technology doesn’t pose a significant threat.

“To control AI and make it work for us and eliminate – as far as possible – its very real dangers, we need to employ best practice and effective management in all areas of its development,” he said. “That goes without saying, of course, that this is what every sector of the economy should incorporate into its ethos and vision, but with artificial intelligence this is vital.”

Addressing a thousands-strong crowd of tech-savvy attendees at the event, he urged them to think beyond the immediate business potential of the technology.

“Perhaps we should all stop for a moment and focus our thinking not only on making AI more capable and successful, but on maximising its societal benefit”

“Everyone here today is in the vanguard of AI development. We are the scientists. We develop an idea. But you are also the influencers: you need to make it work. Perhaps we should all stop for a moment and focus our thinking not only on making AI more capable and successful, but on maximising its societal benefit,” he said. “Our AI systems must do what we want them to do, for the benefit of humanity.”

In particular he raised the importance of working across different fields.

“Interdisciplinary research can be a way forward, ranging from economics and law to computer security, formal methods and, of course, various branches of AI itself,” he said.

“Such considerations motivated the American Association for Artificial Intelligence Presidential Panel on Long-Term AI Futures, which up until recently had focused largely on techniques that are neutral with respect to purpose.”

He also gave the example of calls at the start of 2017 by Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) the introduction of liability rules around AI and robotics.

“MEPs called for more comprehensive robot rules in a new draft report concerning the rules on robotics, and citing the development of AI as one of the most prominent technological trends of our century,” he summarised.

“The report calls for a set of core fundamental values, an urgent regulation on the recent developments to govern the use and creation of robots and AI. [It] acknowledges the possibility that within the space of a few decades, AI could surpass human intellectual capacity and challenge the human-robot relationship.

“Finally, the report calls for the creation of a European agency for robotics and AI that can provide technical, ethical and regulatory expertise. If MEPs vote in favour of legislation, the report will go to the European Commission, which will decide what legislative steps it will take.”

Creating artificial intelligence for the world

No one can say for certain whether AI will truly be a force for positive or negative change, but – despite the headlines – Hawking was positive about the future.

“I am an optimist and I believe that we can create AI for the world that can work in harmony with us. We simply need to be aware of the dangers, identify them, employ the best possible practice and management and prepare for its consequences well in advance,” he said. “Perhaps some of you listening today will already have solutions or answers to the many questions AI poses.”

You all have the potential to push the boundaries of what is accepted or expected, and to think big

However, he stressed that everyone has a part to play in ensuring AI is ultimately a benefit to humanity.

“We all have a role to play in making sure that we, and the next generation, have not just the opportunity but the determination to engage fully with the study of science at an early level, so that we can go on to fulfill our potential and create a better world for the whole human race,” he said.

“We need to take learning beyond a theoretical discussion of how AI should be, and take action to make sure we plan for how it can be. You all have the potential to push the boundaries of what is accepted or expected, and to think big.

“We stand on the threshold of a brave new world. It is an exciting – if precarious – place to be and you are the pioneers. I wish you well.”