The Age of the Ear

In the early days of the iPod, Apple’s adverts drew attention to the distinctive white headphones by contrasting them with the silhouette of the listener. The wires have now vanished but their AirPods are still distinctive, and seemingly ubiquitous. 

They are also big business.  

Airpods are now a projected $15bn a year business (bigger than Adobe) and sales are growing 125 per cent year-on-year. AirPods are now the fastest-growing segment of Apple’s product range with an estimated 60 million units sold in 2019. 

But airpods are the tip of the iceberg of what we’re calling the ‘age of the ear’ – a shift from the dominance of the visual paradigm of computing to one increasingly involving our ears. 

There’s a strong line up of wireless headphones and buds from multiple brands.

According to a recent report by Research and Markets, the Wireless Headphones market worldwide is projected to grow by US$28.6 Billion between 2019 and 2025. 

At the same time, content for these devices is flourishing. Podcasts are no longer a geeky niche but a part of the mainstream. It is estimated that there are about 850,000 podcasts, with 30 million episodes available. Anecdotally, it sometimes feels as if people are as likely to recommend podcasts as they are to talk about what they are watching on Netflix. 

At the same time, the Audiobook category is surging in the UK and continues to grow in the US, where Deloitte expects double-digit growth to continue.

As a result, it is fair to conclude that the white blobs sticking out of people’s ears are only the most visible sign of what can be described as a significant shift to the ear.  

This pieces explores: 
• how did we get here, 
• why the ear has so much traction, and 
• what this means for the future of technology platforms and how we interact with computing and digital experiences.

The Ear Industry 

The Sony Walkman first appeared on 1st July, 1979, making personal, portable sound widely accessible. Ever since, we have been used to the idea of a mobile auditory world of our choosing. Over time, device sizes and formats changed and headphones became their own industry, becoming ever cheaper (and disposable). 

The next landmark was the arrival of the uncompromisingly large and bold 2008 Beats headphones.

Now you could spend a few hundred rather than just a few pounds on headphones. Another icon had been born and another chapter in the story of the rise of the ear written. 

From the advent of the Graphical User Interface in 1973, computing has been largely a visual affair. Innovation in screen technologies have brought vast improvements in picture resolution, size, and quality. 

The dominance of the screen in how we think about computing finds expression in the idea of ‘screen time’ – something we now worry about, measure, or police. Screens are alluring. 

Yet, with the arrival, first, of Siri on iPhones in 2010, and the launch of Amazon’s Echo device in late 2014, voice or conversational interfaces arrived in earnest. The dominance of the screen is being challenged – although the focus on mixed reality experiences, AR and VR (to which I return below) suggests the technology industry’s focus on the visual won’t go without a fight. 

But in the excitement and hype surrounding a voice-first world have we not overlooked the sense of hearing? 

Although the first stereo headphones using Bluetooth launched in 2004, and the “world’s first truly wireless earbuds” from Jabra hit the shops in 2016, the launch of Airpod’s later that year catalysed the category. 

More recently, earphones that offer translation or headphones which claim to learn and adapt to your hearing to make music sound better has emerged. AI, software, and hardware are making once fictional experiences, like a personal interpreter for all occasions, possible. 

Shiny gadgets are part of the story but why might the ear (and hearing and sound) be so powerful? 

The Power of Hearing 

There is a long tradition in Western cultures of ranking vision over the other senses. We often note that ‘seeing is believing’ and when we understand something, we say ‘I see’. 

In his 1969 interview with Playboy magazine, media theorist, Marshall McLuhan, explained how the emergence of literacy and the printed word led us to believe in the superiority of the ‘cool and neutral eye’ over the other senses. 

‘The man of the tribal world,’ McLuhan suggested, ‘led a complex, kaleidoscopic life precisely because the ear, unlike the eye, cannot be focused and is synaesthetic, rather than analytical and rational.’ 

McLuhan provides a partial answer to the power of the ear: hearing can’t be focused in quite the same way as sight and this gives it a distinctive role in how we perceive and make sense of our environment. 

Yet, there are at least six other affordances of hearing that make it different from the ocular and give it the potential for transformation in emerging user experiences. 

1. Hearing doesn’t (always) demand our attention

Sight is greedy and zero sum. Something else loses when the visual sense wins out. Your attention to a screen cannot be shared with attention to the person sitting across the table from you. In contrast, sound doesn’t demand our undivided attention. We can do other things while listening. As a result, sound can play a role in more of our day as we do other things.

2. Sound is an additive layer (or a bit part player)

Sound is one layer of our experience, be that an unmediated or digital one. It can request our close attention, but often enough it adds an additional dimension to our experiences. 

Directions on Google Maps piped to your ears help you navigate a city  – they act like salt to ‘season’ but do not dominate our experience. Sound is happy to play that walk-on role. 

3. The aural is visceral 

Sound is critical to the embodied nature of experience. It opens us up to emotional experiences which we can’t access through the visual senses (see this piece on the musically extended mind) and has a significant impact on mood and emotion. And feelings are not just states of mind but bodily states too: listening to music on an exercise bike changes how we feel, and how fast we pedal.

4. The ear is a unique perch for devices

It may be just an accident of the evolutionary process, but the ear provides the perfect perch on which to place something. They are physiologically well suited and designers have responded to this affordance with glee. The auricle is an uncannily designed home for hardware. 

5. Hearing devices are persistent 

Given they have got a perfect perch, ear devices are easily accommodated as persistent, always-there devices. And persistence leads to availability and accessibility. In that way, earphones quickly become a prosthetic – another part of us. 

6. Hearing devices are socially acceptable 

Earphones, and hearing aids, are unremarkable and well accepted (except when earphones are leaking sound). The debacle of Google Glass demonstrated concern about asymmetry between wearers and others: are they recording me? Are they paying attention to what I'm saying? 

The well-established and socially accepted earbuds have a headstart in a world where people have opted to be wary of smart glasses. 

The ear as a platform

It is not realistic to forecast a total shift from eye to ear, but a rebalancing is afoot. Advances in hardware and software create the possibility for technology experiences that can take advantage of the affordances of our ears and hearing. 

As the ear becomes central to the lash-up of devices and services offered by tech platforms – there have been rumours of a planned AirPod OS and an ecosystem of audio-first app – ears will emerge as more equal partners with screens and smart watches. 

Here’s two plausible landing zones for future ear-based services or experiences, when the formerly visual is re-rendered for the ear. 

Assistance and Augmentation

Ears could (or should) be central to how we experience virtual/digital assistants when they whisper information, advice, or instructions to us – reminding us that we know the ‘stranger’ walking towards us in the station concourse, or warning us that our train is not departing from it’s usual platform. 

Soundtrack for Everyday Life 

There is a possible future in which our ears receive a broader set of ’smart’ inputs across our day. Interspersing music or podcasts with breaking news, dictation of important messages, reminders, and coaching for physical or mental wellbeing. Location awareness could combine with an understanding of our daily routines and content preference to become a polite, pertinent, and useful soundscape.

Welcome to the Age of the Ear 

A simple definition of technology is anything that extends or enhances our capabilities. While there has been plenty of innovation in audio hardware, content, and services over the last few years, the visual has played a dominant role in future hardware visions.

To date, there has been a tendency to focus on the visual aspects of emerging computing platforms. All the talk is of mixed reality framed in terms of visual, not aural overlay. The combination of voice control—now established as a key input modality—and the existing familiarity of earphones look set to be the pairing of the near future. 

Our view is that ‘ear pieces as platform’ will be a profitable way to think about the future of computing and the exciting services and experiences that will be made possible. 

Yet there will be significant user experience challenges.  

We can avert our eyes and have the ability to choose not to see things. We can choose to look away from an advert on the subway and attend to something else. Our ears don’t have an off switch like our eyelids. 

When the hearing device is up-close and personal, and a conduit for a well-meaning but likely imperfect AI-powered virtual assistant, the stakes are suddenly very high. 

In a similar way, a future device that whispers in your ear – to provide information or be useful in some other way – might be subtle, but if it is initiating the interaction itself, it will be taking a gamble that the time and context is right. 

Designing for an aural world will require a deep understanding of how people experience the aural dimensions of life, but indications are that people desire to experience more of their world through the ear and there are commercial opportunities aplenty. 

Welcome to the age of the ear. 

// Simon Roberts