The future of voice: smart headphones and the new era it represents

Source: visual China

Source: visual China

Titanium Media Note: This article was compiled by the public number translation yizhi (yizhichan007), source: Fast Company, translator: fairy ball, titanium media authorized to reprint.

After the explosion of Google, Apple and Amazon's AI voice assistance products, the smartphone business was turned to headset products.

In October 2016, a powerful team from the tech industry spent a long time showing off products produced by a start-up called Doppler Labs.

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and CEO Satya Nadella each received one, as did Apple Internet CEO Eddie Cooey and Apple Beats headset leader Jimmy Ivien.

Also available are senior executives from Amazon, Facebook, Google and Tencent.

Doppler's Here One pre-produced wireless earbuds not only filter out unwanted background noise, amplify the sounds of specific people in the room, and even talk to people who speak a foreign language.

A Doppler staff member had asked a question in Spanish. About half a second later, the Here One wearer heard the English translation of the computer.

At least two companies have already made informal acquisitions of Doppler, but none can offer enough prices to persuade Doppler to abandon plans to launch the new product on its own.

The final product failed to be marketed, and a year later the company was shut down. But that's not the end of the story. In the weeks after the company closed, more than half of Doppler's senior technicians went to work at tech giants.

, Fast Company has learned that both Google,Apple and Amazon have established high-priority projects to continue where Doppler research has been disrupted.

All three projects aim to combine the utility of hearing aids with the entertainment value of high-end headphones and expand further possibilities, according to sources.

Since the three companies have announced their plans to enter the health care program, they can easily add health monitoring sensors ranging from counting steps to measuring oxygen saturation.

Although it may take a few years to achieve, if a consumer can be freed from the phone through a universal in-ear computer, then no one participant will quit.

"In the end, the idea is to steal the user's time from the smartphone," said Gints Klimanis, former head of audio engineering at Doppler. “Smartphones may never disappear completely, but the combination of voice commands and hearing devices can be the main trigger interface for any command.”

Spokesmen for Google, Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft declined to comment on this article.

Why is it wearable, why is it now?

For the past five years, Doppler and other startups have been trying (and failing) to combine "smart voice devices" with high quality, long battery life and other cool features to detonate the market.

The rapid emergence of personal voice assistants such as Amazon Alexa,Apple Siri,Google Smart assistants and Microsoft Cortana brought about a revolution in the biggest interactive mode since the launch of iPhone touch-screen phones. Tech giants are interested in wearable smart voice devices.

Cliff Raskind, an analyst at Strategy Analytics, said we wanted to use this non-touch interactive technology to make smart voice devices the fastest-growing hardware market in recent years.

By 2023, 63% of American households will use devices like Amazon Echo or Google Home, far exceeding the 0.03% in 2014 and 16% in 2017.

Comscore predicts that by that time (2023), Americans will use voice instead of keyboard input for Google search queries. According to Juniper Research, the future advertising market based on voice search will reach $12 billion.

In fact, the market value that can be achieved in the future is not only that, wearable smart voice devices will be able to work much longer than users awake time, It could also bring more data to the tech giants about user behavior and ideas (getting data on ideas is not in the brain, as long as the user says "Alexa, buy *" to know the user's pre-purchase idea).

The ear is the medium to the future

"Technology companies can use headphones to do more than just zoom in on music and make phone calls, and virtual voice assistants can always be in your ear, paying attention to and alerting users to their health problems," Satjiv Chahil said. He is a former marketing director at Apple and has been advising Starkey Hearing Technologies, a hearing aid manufacturer, in recent years.

The characteristics of smart headphones can be of great value. They are placed a few inches from the human mouth and can better understand human speech than smart speakers throughout the room.

Unlike the eyes, even when the user is asleep, the headset is still working and is the ultimate generalist in multiple roles. Thousands of people die each year from trying to text while driving, but most can drive safely in conversation or dictation, even when music is playing or children are noisy.

Headphones won't block the user's attention, so Jony Ive (apple chief designer) may be more likely to design headsets or even invisible headset designs in the future, rather than designing for wearable glasses, remember Google Glasses?

These are just some obvious advantages, through specific sensors and processing systems

Wearable headphones can determine whether the user is in front of a store shelf or a roadside billboard. Adding a heart rate monitor to the device can measure the user's current heart rate, and adding an EEG sensor can analyze the user's brain activity. In a way, it knows what you're thinking-for example, the sound of footsteps from behind you will draw your attention. Poppy Crum, chief scientist at Dolby Labs.

Indeed, the information that artificial intelligence-enhanced speech devices can understand in the future will far exceed the voice content of human output.

A Cambridge-based startup called Audio Analytic has licensed equipment to recognize the sound of broken windows or baby crying.

At this rate, Amazon will soon be able to push Robitussin's ad to you when you hear a cough.

Wearable smart headphones are still a long way off

Smart headphones face a challenge for any maker of popular smart devices.

The size of the device must be small, important to be close to zero, and the product design needs to fit the unique ear canal of each user's anatomy to alleviate the discomfort caused by prolonged wear.

At the same time, you must have at least the same battery life as a smartphone, not to mention the strong signal reception and motherboard processor.

There are also problems with earwax, and how to avoid being disturbed by frequent shaking, waving and earing. These problems are all mysteries in the industry.

According to a recent study, only 6% of Americans expressed a willingness to use voice assistants in public.

The marketization of smart hearing aids also faces great challenges. (Hearing Loss Association of America), the American Association for hearing loss, says that most people (hundreds of millions of people) do not consider head-wearing or ear-piercing devices. And only 16% of the 48 million Americans who currently buy hearing aids benefit from it.

Based on the current consumption trend, the market size of smart hearing aids will be delayed for seven years.

Although the industry has strict regulatory policies, but not to ease this slow market process.

Hearing aids have been defined as medical devices, where manufacturers must obtain approval from the Food and Drug Administration, and consumers must see a hearing doctor at their own expense and get a doctor's prescription to buy it. This is usually not covered by insurance.

Consumer reports say five companies have monopolized the $6 billion a year hearing aid industry in an effort to keep sales profits growing, with an average price of $2700 for products and $10000 or more for top devices.

At present, the strict supervision policy tends to loosen. Last August, Congress passed the 2017 OTC Hearing Aid Law (over-the-counter hearing Aid Act. It will take effect in August 2020.

By then, the company will be able to sell over-the-counter hearing aids online and in any drugstore to people with mild to moderate hearing impairment, just as optometrists can sell $10 reading aids to people who don't want to find optometrists.

The passage of OTC Hearing Aid Law ('s over-the-counter hearing aid opens up a market with great potential for development. The World Health Organization says 1.1 billion children and young people worldwide are at risk of hearing loss. They will grow up in this age of headphones exploding growth.

The law may also have a different impact, when people with poor hearing often say "what?" will go to Walgreens more often (Walgreens is a non-drugstore chain sales agency). Buy a device that looks like a consumer product for hundreds of dollars.

Most likely, they will buy it at the counter next to the sale of a color iPhone case or FitBits, rather than at the seniors sales counter. The device may even not be sold as a hearing aid, but as a Bluetooth headset with "listening enhanced" or "personalized".

“I waited for 20 years at this moment,” said KR Liu, vice president of Doppler's former Accessibility Business, who has been wearing hearing aids since the age of three to ease hearing loss. “Now these great companies can do these great things and use the influence of corporate brands to eliminate the ambiguity of the original market positioning of hearing aids.”

Impact of Dopple

Intelligent voice devices were not created by Doppler, but Doppler has had a huge impact during the short life span.

Noah Kraft, a music industry executive, and Fritz Lanman, a former Microsoft executive, founded the company in 2013 to introduce to the Coachella crowd products that can be used to customize live music sounds, such as adding a "blur" effect or setting the volume to higher.

In early 2016, Doppler formed a strong team of audio experts to develop Here One, to add more "enhancements" to its dialing and music capabilities.

As features spread, Doppler began to accept inquiries from tech giants interested in wearable voice devices, although Here One was due to go public in the coming months, its chief executive, Kraft, said. The exhibition month will be held in October.

Hosted by a team of Doppler's first investors, the event venue is located in a high-end conference room at the Universal Music Office, from which the office overlooks the San Francisco Bay.

Among the visitors were venture capitalists such as Mary Meeker and Yuri Milner, Amazon and its R&D department in Silicon Valley, Lab 126, and teams from Google, Apple and Facebook.

While several companies made some informal offers on the spot, none offered prices close to the Kraft and Doppler boards' valuation of the company.

With the launch of Here One in early 2017, the dreams of all the giants were dashed. Technology media said the here one was a novel design, but the battery life was extremely short and it was difficult to explain how it was separated from ordinary wireless headphones, leading to poor market sales.

However, it is worth mentioning that nearly a quarter of buyers use here as a substitute for traditional hearing aids, and they are cheaper and better sound quality than hearing aids – Doppler has not targeted this group before. .

After Apple's AirPods set off a storm in the headset market, Doppler decided to turn. While the engineering team continued to focus on developing voice capabilities, KR Liu began hosting the OTC bill in Washington, DC.

When the bill passed into law last August, Doppler was in trouble. Kraft again contacted prospective buyers who could meet as soon as possible. A team from Microsoft, including Nadella, explored whether wearable devices could be used to improve employee productivity.

They came up with a couple of interesting ideas. Since Here One has an inward microphone that can amplify the wearer's own voice, can you command Word or Excel with a low decibel voice that people don't notice around you? But in the end, Microsoft decided to abandon the acquisition.

The Google team has also decided to quit again and again, one from the X "moonshot Factory" and the other from the company's hardware division, which is looking for investment to complete its upcoming product, Pixel Buds (, also known as "Pixel Duds."

In September 2017, Apple sent a team to another round of talks, apparently not buying Doppler..

Since 2011, Apple has been learning hearing technology and has partnered with hearing aid manufacturers to enable Apple users to output directly to hearing aids the sound captured by iPhone built-in microphones (for example, Students can place iPhone next to the teacher in front of the lecture and listen to the lecture more clearly through listening aids.

The company has invested heavily in developing communication chip technologies such as W1, which makes AirPods stand out in terms of sound quality, battery life and ease of use. According to NPD Group data, AirPods accounted for 24% of all wireless headset market sales in the first half of this year, far ahead of the second-placed Beats.

Despite this, Apple is still interested in Doppler's senior technical experts, especially those who are proficient in listening algorithms, but they are reluctant to buy Doppler at a sufficient price.

Kraft (upper right corner, red hair / beard) and the previous Doppler lab team. Currently seven people are on Amazon, three on Apple, three on Google and three on Dolby. [photo: provided by Doppler Laboratory]

Kraft (upper right corner, red hair / beard) and the previous Doppler lab team. Currently seven people are on Amazon, three on Apple, three on Google and three on Dolby. The picture is provided by Doppler Lab.

The talks with Amazon lasted the longest and were the most serious. With the powerful smart voice capabilities of the device, users can shop with Alex Voice Assistant without relying on iPhone or Android devices.

The Lab 126 team has been looking for a way to get Alexa out of native devices for years. But considering that Doppler's financial situation is rapidly declining - probably because Doppler learned a lot about technology and business during the negotiation process - Amazon finally gave a lower purchase price.

Eventually Kraft did not accept any bids and chose to close the company in a few weeks. Later, he sold Doppler's intellectual property to Dolby, which has been focusing on the audio software market, and the software produced can be used to enhance the sound of movies or other media.

Dolby has yet to confirm any new products based on Doppler patents, but the company's chief scientist Krum said. “We are thinking about how to combine Dolby’s technology, ecosystem and knowledge with the wearable voice market, a process that takes some time.”

“It’s great to hear that Doppler’s vision will continue to exist, even if the company no longer exists,” Kraft said via email. "The Doppler team has been working hard to help achieve the success of in-ear computers, and we are proud of it." Kraft declined to comment on negotiations with Amazon, Apple and other interested parties.

What will be the next step?

The Doppler has disappeared, but the market vitals for wearable voice smart devices are getting stronger and stronger.

The salary of audio technicians is soaring, and large technology companies pay $200,000 in top talent from startups and traditional hearing aid companies.

Mobile chip giant Qualcomm launched its first chip designed for smart voice products in March, and other chip companies are also expected to launch at the end of this year.

Amazon, Google, and Apple have been secretly running projects. Three former Doppler employees said that at the time of the negotiations last year, Amazon had formed a team of intelligent voice equipment R&D team of 70 employees.

Although Google's hardware team is still primarily on Pixel Buds and other product projects, Google's X division is independently developing in-ear computers, and Google's voice department is also exploring ways to access voice assistants and headsets more easily. Said the people who had dealt with the three former Doppler employees.

Apple is also working cautiously and carefully. According to sources, Apple has not developed a new smart voice product, but added new voice features to the original product.

According to Bloomberg, the company will release high-end headphones for music lovers by the end of the year and launch a waterproof version of the AirPods, which will feature voice-activated devices that users can activate as long as they say "Hey, Siri."

Pioneers in the smart voice wear market have paved the way for the next-in giants. Bragi, a German company founded shortly before Doppler, also recently decided to stop selling its wearable voice devices and switch to the software market.

"when Apple and other big companies are going to cut into your market, they need to change your direction," Nikolaj Hviid said. "but to put it another way, it's really nice to get the favor of these companies."

[Titan media author introduction: The public number "translation refers to Zen" (yizhichan007), focusing on the translation of high-quality long texts in the field of foreign pan-Internet. 】

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