2017 predictions: smart sound everywhere

From AI speakers to “hearable” earbuds, audio and software are about to link inextricably.

amazon echo, smart sound

Smart Sound:

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It was just over a year ago that Sonos did something that was, in my estimation, truly groundbreaking.

The company released TruePlay, a software tool that let speaker owners calibrate their devices to whatever room they were in.

TruePlay did this by using the microphone on a smartphone in conjunction with sounds emitted from the speaker. Working together, the two devices generated¬†enough data for the app to build correct sound settings¬†for the speaker’s environment.

The results were better sound, regardless of how a room was configured and where the speaker was located within it.

Since then, a growing number of companies have been applying software processing to audio, with a variety of results.

Amazon, most notably, appears to have found a hit with its Echo speakers, which play host to the company’s voice assistant, Alexa. Google followed suit in the fall with Home, which is similarly powered by its Google Assistant.

If this week’s Consumer Electronics Show is any indication, such voice-controlled speakers are the next goldmine of doodads with Lenovo and LG already showing off their own versions.

But input-oriented AI speakers aren’t the only evidence of smart sound everywhere. Advanced, output-focused earphones – otherwise known as “hearables” – are also on the rise.

New York-based startup Doppler Labs got the ball rolling last year with its plans for Here One, a set of earbuds that use microphones to identify different ambients sounds and then software to separate them.

The result, which has been delayed till at least February, are earphones that can provide augmented hearing. Wearers will be able to tune out what they don’t want to hear and crank up what they do, which is a cool way of achieving a sort of super hearing.

Apple beat Doppler Labs to the punch, sort of, with its AirPods. Not quite a hearable and not quite an AI speaker, the tiny buds have some functionality of both. They’re intelligent enough to automatically recognize compatible devices and they do pack Siri, which lets the wearer use Apple’s voice assistant without digging out their phone.

Competitors of all stripes will inevitably arrive in 2017, which will doubtlessly be the year that software-enhanced and manipulated sound takes off in a big way across a variety of form factors and implementations.

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