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New earbuds give you super-hearing

Mike Elgan | Aug. 18, 2015
Ready for hearable computing? Startups are rewriting all the rules for what earbuds can do. You heard it here first, folks.

The omnidirectional wireless microphone is designed to let you hear conversations or other sounds even if you're a good distance away from the source. Place the mic near the source, and it will wirelessly stream the sound to your earpiece, making it seem as though you're very close to the source.

The app lets you customize what you hear. It can dial down environmental sounds and turn up speaking voices, so you can easily follow conversations in a noisy place.

The Soundhawk system costs $349. You can buy it on the company's website or on Amazon.


The newish category of hearable devices is a subset of an even more exciting category called disappearable computing (wearable computing devices that vanish into your body in one way or another).

Smart contact lenses, such as the glucose monitoring contacts being developed by Life Sciences (a new company under the Alphabet umbrella which is the conglomerate formerly known as Google), are an example of disappearables.

Smart tattoos, implants, intelligent dental crowns and other such devices are all examples of disappearables. And we'll see these come online as technology allows.

We're seeing hearables first, though, because the technology has already arrived.

It's almost certain that hearable devices will gain mainstream acceptance. We already use earbuds, but the wires are inconvenient. The smartphone-using public will surely go wireless. With the inevitable drop in price and boost in power -- Moore's Law applied to cramming more electronics into wireless earbuds while the cost declines --  wireless earbuds will grow incredibly smart and capable.

The prices of future hearables will be so low, and the features so compelling, that everyone will want to use them.

These devices will give us super hearing like a comic-book mutant superhero.

The ability to customize which sounds we hear from our environment and which we tune out will become far more powerful. We'll be able to carry on clear conversations at loud concerts, or do the opposite -- tune out nearby conversations and hear only the music.

We'll be able to set a range for the sound we hear -- only sounds generated within 10 feet of us, with everything else blocked out, for example. Or, when we choose, we'll be able to block out all sound.

We'll be able to "Tivo" live sound during conversations or meetings. When somebody says something that we don't catch, a quick gesture will give us "instant replay" on what was said. And we'll be able to retroactively capture audio for posterity.

The combination of super clear audible conversations and instant replay means nobody will ever have to ask: "What did you say?"

Hearable devices will give us hands-free, instant access to our virtual assistants -- Siri, Google Now, Cortana, Alexa and others. And our interactions with the artificial intelligence assistants of the future will be enhanced by the biometric-reading capabilities our hearable devices, such as the ability to detect voice stress patterns. Siri and the gang will know our emotional state and respond appropriately.


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