The wearables fitness market is primed to explode – with CES predicting the market will eclipse $1 billion this year, and independent research suggesting 55 percent of Americans plan to use a wearable device in the coming year. However, most of the attention to-date has been on the wrist, with a barrage of new devices from wrist-worn trackers to sensorized smart “cuffs.” Meanwhile, a new category of wearables – “hearables” – is makings strides, leveraging a mainstream consumer accessory: the ear bud.

Apple Watch: A Missed Opportunity?  

The recent announcement of the Apple Watch seemed like a great opportunity for Apple to grab hold of this category and pave the way for others, as it has done with so many new technologies. And, with its newly acquired Beats product line, I was expecting it to offer music from the watch or iPhone and use Beats ear buds to capture health information and store in HealthKit for tracking/management.

From a healthcare perspective, this could have presented numerous opportunities for people and healthcare professionals to collect, track, and manage valuable, personal health information; from a business perspective it could have been a way for Apple to appeal to the teen segment, where the company is traditionally not as strong. Imagine being able to capture someone’s heart rate when they’re listening to a new song or experiencing a new place (based on location data). Now that would have been a consumer insights game changer.

I guess we will have to wait for the next version, or another innovator to pave a path.

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Endless Opportunities

The opportunities to use “hearable” technology to capture valuable information are endless. While the industry has been focusing on the wrist and chest, the ear presents several applications for monitoring:

  • First, it’s using something most of us already wear when we run to listen to music (earbuds). It’s more natural than wearing a clunky gadget on our wrist or an uncomfortable chest strap.
  • Second, the ear happens to be a good place to pick up blood flow as it moves consistently in and out of the ear and the membrane is relatively thin. Using optical sensors by companies like Valencell, we can pick up heart rate, blood flow, and even maximal oxygen uptake (VO2 Max) with accuracy comparable to that of a chest strap.
  • Lastly, the head does not move a lot in relation to the body (as opposed to arms, which tend flail around). This makes it a better predictor of movement and speed. Companies like LG, IriverOn, and FreeWavz have already launched ear buds with this type of health monitoring, and we can expect many more to come.

While the benefits of hearables may be more obvious for avid exercisers during active periods, they also present the opportunity to collect data when someone is at rest listening to music, providing continuous measurement.

A man at high risk for a heart attack who keeps an eye on his max heart rate during his morning run has the added bonus of comparing this number to his resting rate and blood flow while enjoying some smooth jazz on his commute home, painting a much more complete picture of his condition. In the same vein, the hearing-impaired are another promising target demographic for ear-based sensor technology, which could provide doctors and caregivers the ability to discreetly and accurately monitor the vital signs of an elderly patient or loved one.

Filling the Gaps

Early smart headphones are still niche players, with high price points near $200. However, the market is not far from an inflection point. Headphone heavyweights have become increasingly focused on optimizing earbuds for workout warriors (for example, Beats’ latest advertising campaign with Lebron James or Sennheiser’s Adidas model). Current features like water-resistance, durability, and wireless connectivity are quickly becoming commoditized. Over the next year, we can expect to see a high-profile sensor-studded model hit the high-end fitness market.

On the other hand, mass-consumer adoption (the less fitness-driven audience) remains a few years away – once the cost of the technology decreases. The price-sensitive general public is content with much less expensive ear-bud options, particularly because earbuds are included with most smartphone purchases.

In the long term, smartphone makers like Apple, Motorola, and Samsung may have the best opportunity to seize the mainstream market share by bundling smart headphones with other device purchases. Which of these big players will emerge as the leader? We’re keeping our eyes (and ears) open.

Scott Snyder is president and chief strategy officer of Mobiquity.

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