There are those who think that the wrist is the best place for wearables, and those who think it is the ears. I am in the ear camp, wearing hearables all the time. So when the Elbee was launched on Kickstarter I was intrigued. It's a device that you wear in your ears that wirelessly connects you to your smartphone all the time. They are not only high-quality headphones, but they have motion detectors so that you can control your phone (and by extension many other things) simply by moving your head. They have built-in accelerometers. So almost everything that you can normally do by taking out your phone and tapping it, you can do by tilting your head or talking to your Elbee units.

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As a user of what are normally called hearing aids, I get the great benefit of being permanently wired to my phone. But the Elbee offers more: not only the connection but the control. It has inductive charging instead of having to change batteries (although they don't last nearly long enough on a charge). It doesn’t pretend to be invisible, as hearing aid manufacturers strive for, but is in your face and clearly visible.

KonradKonrad reading and nodding. (Photo: Elbee)

I asked the inventor Konrad Holubek about the visibility of the units — did he not think this was a huge handicap? He was surprised by the question; he could not imagine that someone would want to talk into the air on a phone call without people being able to see that the person actually had something in his ears. He didn't see these as devices for people with bad hearing, but as a form of wireless headphone with added features. I see it as being possibly a bit of both, and certainly see it as a device that could change the way people think about having things in their ears.

I asked him also about how nodding your head to control them might not get problematic and have false alarms; it turns out that it's designed to have trigger movements, you look up and that lets the Elbee know that you're about to do something. It’s the same with voice commands: You say “OK Elbee” and it is like “Hey Siri” — it triggers the response.

elbee functionsElbee does a lot more than my hearables can. (Photo: Elbee)

The Elbee has some great things going for it; it promises to do much of what my hearables do at a fraction of the price. I remain concerned that they are so in-your-face visible and wonder whether that will really be acceptable socially to most people in a way that the bluetooth phone earpieces or Google glasses have not. However if they are accepted, then it will open up many opportunities in the hearable world.

Most importantly, it could be the gateway drug for many more people to accept the need to wear hearables, the kind of people who are happy to wear glasses but consider hearing aids to be for old people. These are not designed for old people; they are a better way to connect to all of our technology and to control it with the nod of our head. But they could open a lot of doors.

ElbeeElbee up close and personal (Photo: Elbee)

Elbee has a way to go, another year before delivery, which is what Konrad realistically notes is what it takes to bring a sophisticated product to market. I am not certain that it is the kind of project that can succeed on Kickstarter; it’s a complex device that does not elicit an instant “I want that now” response and probably has higher risk than most.

However the they are on to something with the Elbee. The big companies in the hearables business should watch this closely; it could be a major challenge to their way of designing hearables. Make them bigger, make them cheaper, make them do more, make them cooler and make them in your face instead of hiding them. Nod your head to the left to say you agree; to the right if you don’t.

Lloyd Alter ( @lloydalter ) writes about smart (and dumb) tech with a side of design and a dash of boomer angst.

The Elbee could be the very visible future of hearables
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