Apple's AirPods are turning wireless earbuds into a computer for your ears

OK, they might look weird, but could earbuds become a key way of interacting with our computers?
Written by Steve Ranger, Global News Director

Apple's AirPods might look weird to some, but not only are they dominating the market for totally-wireless headphones, according to research, they also might be a big driver of the use of voice-powered digital assistants.

More than 900,000 totally-wireless headphone units were sold in the US since the start of the year, according to the NPD Group's Retail Tracking Service, and since launching in December, Apple's AirPods have accounted for 85 percent of those sales by value.

Apple's wireless earbuds are powered by its W1 chip and use optical sensors and an accelerometer to detect when they're in the ear. Apple has packed a lot into the Bluetooth earbuds. For example, when the user is making a call or talking to the Siri personal assistant, an additional accelerometer works with beam-forming microphones to filter out background noise and focus on the sound of your voice. The earbuds also promise five hours of listening time on a single charge.

Apple's path to the top was helped by disruptive pricing, its strong brand and excitement over the W1 chip, "which significantly eases Bluetooth connections to iOS and Mac devices", said NPD executive director Ben Arnold.

Rather than just saving us the tedium of untangling headphone cables, Arnold argues that devices like AirPods have a bigger goal: to turn the wireless earbud into a "computing device for the ear".

"With a use case centering on frictionless access to Siri and other tasks initiated by voice, AirPods really act as an extension of the iPhone," he said.

"Consumer reception of wireless earbuds is still forming, even as their use case continues to evolve. As Alexa skills and other voice-first content diversifies, headphones, including totally wireless earbuds, are the leading candidate to be the next piece of hardware to drive digital assistant adoption," he said.

Not that Apple is the only company working on this type of hardware. Arnold points to Bragi's Dash earphones, which features an ARM Cortex M4 CPU, as well as 27 sensors designed to detect movement and voice input, and also benefits from Bragi's partnership with IBM Watson.

"For these products, audio quality remains important, but takes a backseat to new capabilities added on top of the sound experience. With this in mind, it's not hard to imagine a collection of mobile apps optimized for a voice interface, similar to the growing ecosystem of Alexa skills."

Arnold warns that Apple's early dominance of the category will make it tough for other players: "New entrants will have to provide some differentiation in features, sound quality, or associated services and applications in order to stand out," he said.

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