Audio experiences are getting an upgrade. We’re used to great audio for music, videos, and calls. Now, many of us talk to virtual assistants on our smartphone and increasingly on smart speakers (clients, see “Forrester Infographic: The State Of Voice Assistants, 2019“). Tech companies are using improved microphones, computing, and artificial intelligence to create conversational experiences in our homes and, soon, at work. Despite years of work, the leading trio of Amazon Alexa, Apple’s Siri, and Google Assistant are still mostly used for simple tasks and often stumble on detailed or obscure requests.

But there’s more audio innovation in the market now. And the COVID-19 crisis has propelled strong new interest in audio tech that enables touchless and distanced interactions. I’m going to dig in and survey the landscape for a report to clients in the next month. There are two developments already in public view.

Smart Displays And Smart Earbuds Will Expand The Reach Of New Audio Experiences

First is the growth of smart displays: smart speakers with a display, such as Amazon’s Echo Show, the Google Nest Hub, or Baidu’s Xiaodu. These offer the option of detailed visual response in addition to a spoken response. Sometimes, they include a camera, enabling two-way video chat, such as through Facebook’s Portal.

Second, smart earbuds, also called hearables, have become quite popular. Financial analysts estimate that Apple AirPods revenue was $6 billion in 2019 and project that more than doubling for this year (though this was a pre-COVID-19 forecast). Competing with Apple are Amazon’s Echo Buds, Google’s Pixel Buds, Microsoft’s Surface Earbuds (with an Office productivity twist), and the Samsung Galaxy Buds, all offering the house virtual assistant and touch controls. Innovators also include Jabra, with its Elite Sport product, and Soul Electronics, with its Run Free Pro BIO offering with built-in biometric sensors for heart rate or gait analysis. Two startups are offering real-time translator earbuds: Timekettle and Waverly Labs.

Let Me Know About Audio Innovation In The Pipeline

I’m scoping the landscape of other audio innovations to figure out what else will appear to upgrade our ambient experiences with better audio. There’s contextually aware noise canceling from Krisp Technologies and BabbleLabs. There’s a new version of Bluetooth, 5.2, with LE Audio and the associated new chips that will bring upgraded audio power and broadcast streaming channels for products arriving by late 2020. I was intrigued by Audio Analytic’s ai3 platform that detects audio events, human or machine, in order to capture and adjust to situations like a distracted truck driver or a baby crying. I’m even finding hints of directional audio that enables the projecting of sound to specific zones or people.

What am I missing? What other interesting products and technologies are out there that will help consumers and workers better navigate their daily tasks and journeys with smarter audio? You can tweet me at @FrankGillett. To tout your cool new product, submit a vendor briefing request. Clients can reach me via your Forrester client team.