Prepare yourself for the next wave in wearables: Hearables. They’re headphones and earbuds that connect to your phone for more than just music, with built-in chips that can handle dialogue with voice-based assistants and relay other useful stats via audio as well. A new chip developed by Qualcomm, announced at CES this week, may help fuel the hearable revolution.
The Qualcomm QCC5100 series is a low-power Bluetooth system on a chip (commonly referred to as an SoC). The chip’s biggest impact is on battery life. It reportedly cuts down on battery usage by 65 percent over previous generations, giving headphones three times the battery life you see these days. And for wireless headphones, battery life is a key purchasing factor. Depending on the size and style, current headphones typically offer between three and 20 hours of juice. With three times the battery life, you could toss in a fully-charged pair of headphones for a weekend trip and not think twice about leaving its charging cable behind. Or you could feel confident about wearing them all day.
As we saw with wearables like smartwatches, all-day battery life is key for pushing adoption from niche to must-have accessory. In 2016, The Verge’s Lauren Goode argued that battery life was “the biggest pain point in wearables.” In the past two years, wearable battery life has improved dramatically—while many easily last for a full day, some, like Garmin’s Vivomove HR smartwatch, can last anywhere from five days to two weeks before needing a charge. With developments like Qualcomm’s new chip, we can begin to see this same sort of transformation happen to the wireless devices we wear in or over our ears. And since many handset makers are foregoing the traditional headphone jack, chances are that future earbud purchases will be wireless—and that battery life will matter.
This new processor doesn’t just boast power efficiency, however. With a quad-core processor, it also delivers double the computing power of Qualcomm’s previous chip offering, which was used in Jabra’s wireless AirPods competitor, the Elite Sport. It has improved Bluetooth transmission capabilities as well. Bluetooth 5, the latest Bluetooth wireless standard (which this chip supports), is designed to improve connectivity in the Internet of Things age, quadrupling Bluetooth range, doubling transmission speed, and improving overall interoperability with other wireless standards for a stronger, more stable connection.
All of this will be necessary as earbuds and headphones evolve from simple ear-worn speakers into true smart devices—hearables. Thanks to a handful of new developer kits, Amazon’s Alexa virtual assistant will soon start arriving on these devices. As we’ve seen so far at CES, Google Assistant is also making its way into a wide array of new products, headphones included. Improved processing power and a better Bluetooth connection will be key to ensuring headphone-based virtual assistants can properly understand, relay, and act on our voice-based commands. And, in fact, among the QCC5100’s technical specs, Qualcomm highlights that the chip is “digital assistant ready,” capable of using local voice recognition algorithms on its own chip in tandem with cloud-based programs doing heavier processing through a mobile app.
Since it was just announced, we don’t yet know of any products or brands planning to use this chip, but Qualcomm’s last version was used in a number of popular 2017 earbud models. Anthony Murray, Qualcomm’s senior vice president and general manager of voice and music business, said that the QCC5100 is “a big step forward in the hearable category.” You can expect it and other similar, more efficient models to fuel this next wave in wearables.
Read more of Slate’s coverage of CES 2018.