Jan 19 2022

Hearables Combine Machine Learning and Microchips for Smart Listening

In-ear devices with artificial intelligence and biometric technology may have a place in higher education.

We’ve all heard of Apple Watch and Fitbit; if you don’t own one of these wearable devices, you likely know someone who does. But in the past year, the hearables segment (think AirPods) of the wearables market has seen a sharp rise in demand. These quickly evolving devices might just become the next important tech tool in the higher education toolbox.

It’s not just about wireless earbuds, hearing aids and noise cancellation. Developers of hearable tech are supplementing sleek, in-ear devices with machine learning and artificial intelligence, biometric sensors, and microchips.

The result? An incredibly powerful, increasingly tiny, connected audio device that can play numerous roles, including personal assistant, translation tool and health monitor, offering accurate insight into the user’s short- and long-term physical, mental and even emotional states.

EXPLORE: Emerging wearable technology created at The University of Texas at Dallas. 

Sensors Give Hearables Insight into Biometrics

Sound like a computer for the ear? Exactly. In early 2022, EAR Micro plans to release a programmable quad-core in-ear device that’s a third of the size of an AirPod and can react to voice, touch, head movements and mouth gestures. By offering a voice-free interactivity mode, it could prove to be useful in improving communication between teachers and students with certain disabilities.

Because nerve endings and blood vessels run close to the surface in the ear, hearables can collect incredibly accurate biometric readings. The range of biodata that can be tracked is impressive: heart and respiration rates, blood pressure, glucose, electrical activity in the brain, eye and body movement, blood oxygen, stress hormones. This means that hearables could be useful in college athlete training and health education.

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Hearables Can Play Many Classroom Roles

Nick Hunn, CTO at WiFore Consulting, says hearables can work to augment audio quality and aid concentration in the classroom.

“There’s some interesting work going on to increase intelligibility of voice, particularly where there is background noise,” he says. “The broadcast features in Bluetooth LE Audio can also help, transmitting to a whole classroom, or providing location-specific information. You can use that for quite localized audio streams, which may be linked to specific tasks, instructing people in physical techniques.”

For students learning English or a foreign language, hearables with translation features already exist, like the AI-powered Ambassador Interpreter, an over-the-ear device that provides language translation and interpretation in 20 languages and 42 dialects. Timekettle’s WT2 Edge earbuds offer bidirectional, simultaneous translation of 40 languages and 93 accents, which could prove useful for a seminar, panel discussion, conference meeting or classroom setting with professors and students of international backgrounds and varying language abilities.

LEARN MORE: About how the user experience of technologies plays a role in the classroom.

According to Athabasca University professor Rory McGreal in an article in The Conversation, hearable tech could have plenty of more general but rather significant applications across the higher ed community: improving communication and rapport between students and teachers; determining the right context or format for lecture delivery; allowing students to play lectures, reminders and notifications; supporting interactivity via text-to-speech applications; and instant replay and recordings to help students with lesson comprehension.

The obstacle, Hunn points out, is in the balance.

“An interesting challenge in learning is to capture attention, and there are certainly applications where hearables can help in that,” Hunn notes. “Like any teaching aid, that needs to be done with care, as there are times when a lack of stimulus helps you think.”

It’s no surprise that by 2030, the market for hearables with biosensors is projected to reach $5 billion. With so many possible uses hearables are bound to find a way into the classroom.

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