by Zuriñe Dopacio González

September 15, 2014

Brad Pitt saw it coming

Let’s go back in time when Brad Pitt featured the cover of Wired wearing a Bluetooth headset.  People were joking that not even he managed to make Bluetooth headsets look cool. However, despite all the jokes and scorn the headset trend is definitely coming back!

These new ear-worn devices are much smarter than the Bluetooth headsets of the past. More importantly the ear is a more reliable source of information for measuring health data since the flow of blood around this area is more uniform thereby providing stronger signal to light stimuli and hence reduced losses and disturbances. Also since the ear does not move on its own, unlike the hand of the arm the signals emanating can easily be distinguished between premeditated or unintentional ones.

German based Kickstarter superstar Bragi’s Dash is a great example that also shows massive consumer interest for such a device. The product is wireless and waterproof in ear headphones, MP3 player and fitness tracker including heart rate monitor. Both runners and couch potatoes can enjoy now listening to their favorite music while tracking their vital data. The Dash can play music from an embedded music player or through a Bluetooth connection with a smartphone. The device uses a special technology to stream the full music band-width over bluetooth. It tracks movements like pace, steps, cadence and distance and measures heart rate, oxygen saturation and energy spent. Real time acoustic feedback is provided during the activity. And as if that wasn’t enough the headset also works as a Bluetooth headset and delivers clear voice quality through an embedded ear bone microphone. The wearer can choose to channel ambient sound into the headphone with the transparent audio feature. A simple swipe on the touch surface of earpiece will enable or disable ambient sound to pass through. This really looks good on paper but we will need to wait at least until January 2015 to see this in real life.

Another successfully funded ear-worn product is FreeWavz, developed by an ear, nose and throat surgeon in Orlando, Florida. FreeWavz are Bluetooth earphones that fit on the ears and optimize sound. Through FreeWavz earphones, you can hear updates of heart rate, calories burned, distance, steps and exertion. To take these readings, the earpieces shine a beam of light through the thin tissue of the earlobe at the blood vessels under the skin and then analyze the color and density of the light that’s picked up by a sensor on the back of the ear. You are in control of what fitness metrics you want to hear and how often. FreeWavz also allow you to hear your music and the surrounding environment, a feature most important for people exercising outdoors. FreeWavz have the ability to perform basic Siri commands so you can stay heads-up your entire workout – with no need for other fitness devices.

But projects focused on the ear are not only coming up from crowdfunding platforms. Chipmaker Intel and the consumer electronics company, SMS Audio, founded by the rapper 50 Cent are partnering to launch a line of headphones  with sensors that can measure your heart rate. The “SMS Audio BioSport In-Ear Headphones powered by Intel” will debut later this year. The headphones will be able to measure your heart rate whenever you are wearing them. That will allow you to record your heart rate while you’re working out, walking, or even sleeping. By logging all of this data, Intel and SMS Audio can figure out your exercise patterns and figure out where you are falling short. It can then offer fitness advice that will get you working a little bit harder every day. The device has a built-in optical sensor that continuously measures heart rate during intense exercise, states of relaxation and every moment in between – while dynamically removing noise signals caused by body motion and ambient light. The headphones will be sweat and water-resistant, they will synchronize with the RunKeeper step-tracking app and you won’t need to charge them separately because they will be charged from the device they are connected to.

LG also came out with their own hearable to track metabolic rate and cardiovascular well-being, precise real-time fitness metrics and play music at the same time. The “HRM Earphone Heart Rate Monitor” continuously monitors a full range of data (including distance, calories, steps, 3-axis accelerometer direction and more) in virtually any weather condition. LG’s innovative device is connected to a lightweight medallion device that you can strap on your arm or clip on your waistband. This medallion serves as the data processing hub, sending real-time biometric information via Bluetooth to your Android or iOS smartphone equipped with the free LG Fitness App, as well as to the Lifeband Touch Fitness Tracker.

Also Apple with the recent acquisition of Beats Music might be thinking about integrating their patented biometric technology into Beats headphones. Back in February the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office awarded a patent to Apple for biometric headphones that can monitor temperature, heart rate and perspiration levels. Maybe at the next big Apple event they will not announce an upgrade of the new Apple Watch but the Apple Headphones. We will keep an eye on this.

If like to work out while listening to your favorites tunes, Jabra is offering a solution for you. They recently launched the “Wireless Jabra Sport Pulse” featuring an in-ear heart rate monitor.The Pulse has standard Bluetooth connectivity for music and call control, but also has a companion app called Jabra Sport Life. The app can test your fitness level and then help users plan and track their overall workout, including aerobic capacity. The earbuds are IP55 rated for water, dust and drop resistance and have 4.5 hours of battery life for talk and music time, with a 10-day standby.

Cosinuss presented their earpiece product range at our WT | conference in San Francisco . Their product C-SP01 can deliver beats into your ear while tracking your heartrate. The ear-worn product contains an optical sensor detecting the rush of blood under the skin inside the ear. It’s based on the same principle as the fingertip heart-rate monitors used in hospitals. Future versions will also be able to measure core body temperature and, with the addition of another LED and photodiode to the sensor pack, blood oxygen saturation, too. The case contains a micro-USB recharging socket and the battery fits behind the ear. While its first product will be a fitness accessory, the company’s sensor system also has other applications including health care and occupational safety, monitoring the health of workers in dangerous environments. If you would like to see the device in action stop by at our booth at Medica in November. Cosinuss will be exhibiting their product at the WTshow.

iRiver On is a product that has been out there for quite some time. However, it has an interesting different form factor approach. It’s a pair of stereo Bluetooth headphones and a heart rate monitor in one. It is able to give an accurate estimate of your VO2 max. It’s probably impossible for any small device to give you results that accurate, but Valencell, which is the technology that iRiver is using, claimed the results are within a seven-percent margin of error. With a semi-rigid plastic collar in the shape of a C and two earbuds coming out of it is where the magic happens. The earbuds also feature a pulse oximeter with an optical sensor.

Lumafit again is company who was seeking for funding on Kickstarter, thanks to 1.000 backers the project will become reality. The device sits over the ear and additionally clips the ear lobe. A three-axis accelerometer “sees” your actions in real time and can identify various moves like push-ups, burpees, and going to the fridge for a beer. It can also sense minute changes in heart rate to assess mindfulness while meditating. The team is stocked with former MIT MediaLab folks. Because it contains a “medical grade” heart rate sensor, the system can detect stress as well as arrhythmia. An app called Bootcamp helps the user to create workouts and schedule meditation sessions.

The new Moto Hint from Motorola is not for health tracking, but a new approach to a Bluetooth headset. The Hint is a tiny, Bluetooth-enabled earbud that is designed to keep you in immediate, voice-enabled touch with the world around you. It’s not just for phone calls. It is for getting directions, for doing quick voice searches, for hearing text message or quickly adding something to your to-do list. The Hint is about the size of a peanut, and nests entirely in your ear. It actually looks like the earpiece Joaquin Phoenix’s character wears throughout Her (the movie WT CEO Christian Stammel referred in his keynote at the WT|conference in SFO). And the intention is very much the same: you’re not meant to put it in and take it out, but to wear it all the time. There’s a sensor in the earbud that recognizes when it’s put in your ear, and it turns on and connects automatically; when you take it out it turns off. Will new functionalities, a movie and Motorola finally manage to make this cool?

Soundsight are also a new device type worn on the ear. The company developed the first video recording smart headphones. The Soundsight wireless headphones feature an integrated camera with a CCD sensor capable of recording 1080p HD video to digitally capture the world around you as you bounce at the rhythm of your personal soundtrack streamed over Bluetooth from a paired smartphone or music player. The wide angle lens can be rotated over 270 degrees using the circular grip ring on the outer ear cup housing. To start your point of view recording, you just tap a button in the middle of the grip ring. Users can save footage to the connected smart device or opt to live stream recorded content. The app can also edit, trim and apply effects to recorded video, users can prepare music to run with the recorded video, and a ColorTune feature can automatically suggest tunes by matching video colors to music notes. The headphones will come out in 2015.

To finish this review we wanted to safe for the end a device that we all owned about 20 years ago –  the Walkman from Sony, but this time completely waterproof! And to prove it they come packaged it in a water bottle. The “Bottled Walkman” is currently being sold from vending machines across New Zealand for example in places like gyms. The NWZ-WS610 Series waterproof Walkman features a lightweight, wrap-around headband that will hold tight whether you’re in the pool or on the track. NFC and Bluetooth connectivity make listening easy, so you’re free to focus on your workout. Stay in control and move with a compact, splash proof remote. Attach it to your finger or a wristband and easily change tracks as you exercise.

As we can see in this review, it seems that companies big and small are currently entering a market that already seemed to be (unsuccessfully) explored, however, this time with new “touches” that make them different. Earpieces or so called Hearables are back – The game is on!