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Why virtual assistants are the ‘killer app’ for wearables

Mike Elgan | Nov. 20, 2017
‘Hearables’ and smart glasses will keep us in range of our virtual assistants everywhere, all the time.

In fact, virtual assistants are to wearables what the internet was to smartphones. OK, I’d better explain that.

The internet came online in 1969, but most people didn’t even know about it until the ’90s. What changed was the invention of the web in the late ’80s and the creation of the first Windows web browser in 1993.

Over the next decade or so, an increasing number of businesses and individual people concluded that the internet was so important that they never wanted to be without it.

It took decades for always-connected access to the internet to emerge, but public desire for it drove, and still drives, demand for smartphones.

Today, people are gradually realizing they don’t want to be without virtual assistant-powered smart speakers such as the Amazon Echo line, Google Home and, soon, Apple HomePod.

As this happens, the public will grow increasingly unhappy about not being able to do the “smart speaker behavior” of just talking when they’re away from their smart speaker. They’ll want access all the time.

Smartphones can’t enable the “smart speaker behavior,” despite hands-free options available for some phones and some virtual assistants. (When a smartphone is in a pocket or purse, you can’t just talk to the virtual assistant app installed on it — unless you have a wearable peripheral such as earbuds.)


The rise of A.I. wearables

Technology market research firm Counterpoint estimates that roughly one-third of the wearables shipping this year will be powered by artificial intelligence, or A.I.

Fully half of those A.I.-powered wearables are “hearables” — smart earbuds such as Apple’s AirPods and Bragi’s Dash, according to Counterpoint. (Bragi Dash earbuds support Amazon’s Alexa virtual assistant.)

AirPods are designed entirely around Apple’s Siri virtual assistant. By double-tapping on the AirPods, Siri is conjured and will answer questions as well as enable voice control of music, podcasts and other features.

Google’s Pixel Buds are getting negative reviews, but reviewers praise Google Assistant integration.

And a wide variety of more narrowly targeted virtual assistant headphones, earbuds and similar products has emerged recently, including Vinci 2.0, Onvocal OV, MonsterTalk Headphones, Sony’s N concept and Xperia Ear product, and Lifebeam’s Vi.

A Hong Kong startup called Origami Labs even has a smart ring wearable that transfers audio to your ear through bone conduction (you put your finger on your ear).

The most interesting category of A.I. wearables will be smart glasses. While a smattering of minor products now exists in the category, the real beginning of the virtual assistant smart glasses era will begin with Amazon smart glasses, which are imminent, according to an article in the Financial Times.


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