Welcome to your hearable future. At the launch of the iPhone 7 yesterday, Apple announced that it was ditching the white headphone wires that have been an icon of the brand since 2003. Instead, listeners will use AirPods, a pair of wireless earbuds that connect to the phone over Bluetooth.
Ditching the headphone jack allows the iPhone 7 to shrink even slimmer, and losing a hole makes the phone more water resistant. But this is also the latest case of Apple using its flagship product to bring a tech trend to the masses– get ready for “hearables” doing battle for the ownership of your ears.
I’ve been using similar technology since 2014, when Apple paired with Starkey Hearing Technologies to produce the world’s first set of smartphone-connected hearing aids, the Starkey Halo. The software means I can take calls and listen to music directly via my hearing aids. The codec that Apple developed for these devices, which allowed audio streaming over low-energy Bluetooth for the first time, now appears in the AirPods.
A handful of start-ups have released devices that aim to take hearables even further. New York firm Doppler Labs offers the Here One, a pair of outsized earplugs that auto-tune your environment to play you a more aesthetically pleasing version. And German company Bragi has the Dash, a wireless “smart earphone” that incorporates a music player, pedometer, pulse rate monitor, and much more.
Hand-in-hand with the hardware comes the voice-recognition software to control it: think Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, OK Google and most recently Alexa, the AI that lives in Amazon’s Echo device. Just as smartphone apps took over from the web as the way most of us use the internet, hearables promise to take over from screens, bringing relevant information directly to our ears. Want to know what the weather is like in Rome, the contents of your inbox, or how long it will be until your next train arrives? Just wonder aloud, and Siri will whisper the answer discreetly into your ear.
Unlike visual interfaces, which demand your attention, audio provides an ideal interface for pervasive, background connectivity. The end goal is a more immersive type of computing, where the interface itself becomes invisible. We’re only just beginning to explore the possibilities that lie in this space: last year, sound artist Daniel Jones and I used this hearable technology to create Phantom Terrains, an app that allowed me to sense Wi-Fi fields. It’s likely that we’ll soon see developers creating novel apps that exploit the platform offered by AirPods.
At the AirPod launch, Apple’s Phil Schiller said that removing the headphone jack was an act of “courage to move on,” and some commenters joked that Apple might ditch the iPhone’s screen next. With the rise of audio interfaces and computers that live in your ear, that’s not as crazy as it sounds. But if you’re not quite ready to move on from cables, the iPhone 7 comes with an adaptor that will allow you to plug your old, wired headphones in the phone’s remaining Lightning port.