A lot of people have been complaining about Apple’s “courageous” decision to eliminate the headphone jack on the new iPhone, but not me; I have hearables, or internet-connected wearables for your ears, and they connect directly to my iPhone via bluetooth. Mine also happen to be hearing aids.
Connected hearables are hot these days. Kickstarter is full of them; there are Bragi Dash, Nuheara IQbuds and of course, the Apple AirPods. The major hearing aid companies, including Resound, Starkey and Oticon have beat them to the punch, turning their hearing aids into connected devices. Apple has built special software into its phones to make it easy to connect, but they can work with Android devices, too.
I previously tried and reviewed the Resound Linx and original Halos, and found it useful and fun to be connected through them to the phone. (Digby Cook has tried out the Oticons; read his review here.) I felt sorry for people who had wires hanging out of their ears. I loved being able to answer the phone and listen to podcasts, but I honestly couldn’t say that they could replace a good set of headphones, and since I work from home, I didn't have them on every waking minute.
For the last few weeks, I've been testing Starkey’s new Halo 2 hearables, and I'm finding that they're more than just a serious upgrade. They're more like “aural implants” — a term used by Michael Brandt of Fast Company to describe the new Apple AirPods:
For Apple, this is more than just an incremental update to their headphone product. This is a paradigm shift, a Jedi move by Apple where the seam between human and computer is disappearing.
Except the AirPods don’t last all day, and unless all those dumb hairstyles of the 1970s come back, people still see white things sticking out of your ears, or as in this selfie of me trying out Nuheara IQbuds, big black and silver plugs.
The new Halo 2 hearables have fabulous sound quality, as good as headphones. They are sharp and crisp, and voices are clearer than I can remember. They are really good at picking conversations out of the ambient noise. (Read tech details of how they do this here.)
They work with the TruLink app that lets me control them from my iPhone and my Apple Watch — in fact, that's the only reason I got an Apple Watch — except I have barely ever needed to take that step; they have a mind of their own and adjust their sensitivity to the surrounding environment brilliantly. Even in the car or on my bike when there is wind noise, they know what to do, using the GPS to detect my speed and adjusting accordingly. (More on this in my earlier post on the original Halos.)
As for the app and the watch, I only use it when the dog is barking.
Erasing the seam between human and computer
But where they get really exciting is at that seam between human and computer, which is disappearing fast. All my phone and Skype calls go directly into both ears, as do podcasts. I'm now listening to more music than I have in years, because the quality is so good and it's so easy with iTunes streaming music.
Years ago, my dad had a talking Chrysler that would spit out messages like “a door is ajar” or “gas is low.” When asked why he wanted a car that nagged him, he said “it makes me feel at home.”
I have come to love my nagging hearables. I use Google Maps even if I'm driving somewhere that I know, because it not only reminds me of the exit coming up but tells me about traffic, a friendly voice helping me along the way. This is not without its problems; I was in London recently, looking at the scenery while walking to a meeting, when my roaming data bundle expired and Google Maps quit on me. Since I hadn't been looking at the map on the phone, I had absolutely no idea where I was or even what direction I was facing, totally lost because I was so reliant on that voice in my ears. (On my next trip out of town, I started looking at the map occasionally.)
Now I'm also trying out notifications and alerts, letting my hearables nag me about appointments, direct tweets and messages. I get little chirps when they arrive. I'm never alone.
Soon, everyone will be doing this, with all the different hearables coming onto the market. The internet will adapt to this new world; As Brandt concludes,
What makes AirPods a winner is that Apple will throw their whole ecosystem behind it. We’ll have better Siri, we’ll have interesting interactions using Watch as a controller, and we’ll see a flurry of apps we can’t even imagine. These aren’t just wireless headphones, this is the entire internet implanted in your ear.
No doubt Google and Android will be on the case too, as the hearables world explodes. What I am experiencing is just the beginning.
Hearables make stereotypes obsolete
Right now, only a small fraction of the people who need hearing aids get them; they are expensive and there has always been a stigma to them. People think they make them look old. But once people start realizing that they do so much more than just help you hear, I suspect that stigma will disappear. People will think they look wired and connected. (Some people, like Vincent Nguyen at Slashgear, are wearing them even though they have normal hearing, simply because they love the features.)
Now, even when I'm alone in my home office and don’t need to wear them for hearing, I'm putting the Halo 2s on because they have become my default link to the audible internet. They're not a stigma to me; they're a super power. As hearing aids, these devices have changed my life by letting me hear the immediate world around me; as hearables, they are wiring me directly into a much larger world.
And when the dog is barking at a squirrel, I can just turn him off. Try that with your regular ears.