If you ask Tirha Herzig, my 11-year old niece, AirPods were the blockbuster gift of 2019. She was absolutely speechless when the last present under our Christmas tree turned out to contain a dental floss-size pillbox with her first pair of AirPods. She knew exactly what it was, like a high-tech Tiffany jewelry box, and squealed with delight before she even opened it. I have to admit that I was a bit stunned by how excited she was to own a small pair of wireless earbuds—not exactly the sort of fashion statement you would expect from a girl who recently got her ears pierced and doesn’t even own a smartphone (strictly iPod Touch for the time being). But that’s all the more reason to step back and quietly reflect on the wearables revolution that Apple has spawned.
According to Apple, wearables accounted for as much as $10 billion of their most recent quarterly sales, up from $7.3 billion the previous year, with AirPods and AirPods Pro leading the charge. Apple doesn’t break out separate numbers for each of its wearable product lines, but Tim Cooke confirmed that the company is having trouble meeting demand for the Pro, due to the appeal of its smart, noise-canceling features. For comparison, wearables have now passed the entire Mac product line as a contributor to Apple’s topline numbers. Some analysts are predicting it will soon be a $100 billion-business—roughly the size of General Motors.
I must confess to being skeptical about Apple’s latest blockbuster product (not the first time), though I find myself increasingly convinced that pretty much everyone I know will be walking around with smart, wireless audio devices in their ears by the end of 2020. While I still identify these earbuds with the Bluetooth Jawbones worn by businessmen in the early 2000s, my niece seems blissfully free of those dorky associations. Aesthetically, I am not a fan of the stumpy bug-like AirPod antennas, which, unlike traditional earbuds, people tend to leave in their ears all day, even when they are not in use. And I fear that AirPods Pro and their successors will set a new bar for high-priced disposable tech products, given the ease and frequency with which they are likely to get lost and need to be replaced. Not bad from a business perspective and pretty typical of Apple’s general disregard for sustainability.
But perhaps it is time to rethink my resistance and consider the possible upside to a future where smart audio augmentations are not just ubiquitous, but culturally appropriate in a way that no other piece of wearable digital technology currently is.
As the failure of Google Glass has shown, it is not easy to get to a place where these sorts of augmentations are culturally accepted. The enthusiasm and desire of an 11-year old girl suggests that AirPods have cleared a number of important hurdles. My niece already considers herself an expert in their operation, walking around the house listening to music in the morning, her hands free for crafting projects, without waking her mom. Apple has built in a host of thoughtful, natural interactions that require zero interface to manage. Tirha proudly demonstrated how the music pauses automatically when she removes her pods from her ears. This is exactly the sort of design nuance that was lacking when Google introduced Glass back in 2013.
But AirPods aren’t just nifty devices that appeal to the whims of an 11 year old. They can also be used as hearing devices, meeting a real medical need.
With rapid urbanization, large swaths of people are migrating to mega-cities, where noise pollution is a constant threat to their sanity and well-being. As urban populations age, there is likely to be a huge increase in hearing loss associated with this mass migration. According to one study, noise pollution already costs the U.K. an estimated £20 billion (about $26 billion) annually in economic, social, and health costs. Noise pollution has been connected to numerous public health issues, including increases in hypertension and coronary heart disease, with costs estimated at $3.9 billion in the United States, according to a study published by the NIH in 2015. There is a strong, positive correlation between noise pollution in cities and hearing loss (64% according to the Worldwide Hearing Index). These health issues are likely to set in a whole lot earlier than previous generations, with a significant impact on both mental health and livelihoods. In addition to some of the worst air quality in the world, the residents of Delhi (the second worst city in the world for noise pollution) have hearing loss equivalent to people almost 20 years older than their actual age.
For more than a century, much of the world’s population has enjoyed relatively affordable access to personalized vision augmentation devices (i.e., eyeglasses). But those who are hard of hearing have not been as fortunate. In 2015, the average price of a hearing aid was $2,300.
The enormous impact of hearing loss was brought into focus for me over the holidays. I spent considerable time working with my spry 89-year-old father to manage his frustrations during family gatherings as he attempted to make effective use of very expensive hearing aids. Studies have shown that hearing loss has a compound effect on the elderly as I have gotten to see firsthand. According to one study, untreated hearing loss increases the risk of dementia by 50%, depression by 40%, and falls by 30% over a 10-year period. As it becomes harder to participate in group discussions (particularly in restaurants or other public environments), my father often gets frustrated and withdraws, further isolating himself. This self-reinforcing cycle has significant effects on both his cognitive functioning as well as his quality of life as a vibrant, independent, and active New Yorker. This is to be expected from someone who is pushing 90, but what about someone in their mid-50s (like me) or 60s?
Unfortunately, my father appears to be too old to get comfortable with a new piece of technology, particularly one he can barely hold in his fingertips to adjust the volume or change the battery. But what if he had been wearing these audio augmentation devices for decades, becoming accustomed to their feel and operation as they adjusted progressively to his hearing needs? What if the software had become equally accustomed to his acoustic environment, including the voice profiles of the people that he cares about the most? While this is beyond the capabilities of even the AirPods Pro today, it is not hard to imagine how Apple’s software could get increasingly smart over time, just like Siri or Alexa. I appreciate the potential downside to having a large tech company snoop on every one of your conversations for the next 30 years. But perhaps there is an upside. Would adopting AirPods now—so far I have resisted buying a pair—be a good bet on my future?
The future market opportunity could be massive for Apple given the aging of the U.S. population. My dad, and most of his friends, have forked over tens of thousands of dollars on a set of products they absolutely hate, not just for their poor operation but for their association with disability. It is not just that conventional hearing aids are poorly designed and not user-friendly. These ugly devices are hidden behind a facade of skin tone plastic, only to be glimpsed like some sort of fleshy growth that sprouts from your ear. Hearing aids are seen as a sign of weakness, of embarrassment, by his generation and mine. Apple, and others, are perfectly poised to reposition audio prostheses for a vibrant and proud future that might benefit us all in a profusion of different form factors that can be worn like jewelry—not a personal defect to be hidden from view. This shift has already begun in other areas of prostheses.
Will the company choose to go there? Apple has built its fortunes—and staked its wearable future thanks to partnerships with Gucci and others—on embodying the ultimate blend of fashion and technology, not disability. We can also look at the history of successful mainstream product innovations that have emerged from serving people with specialized needs. In 1872, Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone to support his work helping the deaf. You might be sitting on an Aeron chair (whose mesh fabric was originally developed to prevent bedsores) and sending an email to a friend or colleague (which Vint Cerf invented in part to better communicate with his wife, who was deaf). There is a long tradition of user-friendly design emerging from a focus on the needs of the disabled that have lead to broader benefits for the rest of us. The impact of low-cost audio enhancement products could extend well beyond my father to an aging tuk tuk driver in Mumbai. But only companies like Apple have the twin ability to refashion our cultural expectations while simultaneously reengineering the value chain to bring the cost of these smart technologies within reach of the broader world.
If not Apple then perhaps someone else. After all, many Silicon Valley executives are aging as well, along with their parents. While Google might not be interested in resurrecting Glass for general consumers, the concept has been picked up by Aira (one of the winners of Fast Company‘s 2019 World Changing Ideas Awards), a remote platform to support the visually impaired and augment many areas of their life, particularly their ability to earn a living. The founders of the hearing aid manufacturer Eargo have partnered with leading industrial design firm Ammunition to take a crack at this very market, offering its own line of smartbuds in the $2,000 to $3,000 range (expensive, but not as outlandish as some devices) that combine slick aesthetics, intelligent software, and contemporary branding to reposition hearing aids for the Silicon Valley set.
That does not mean that there aren’t challenges ahead before this future is realized.
Our brains are hardwired to avoid anyone who seems sick or deranged, an instinct that can be difficult to overcome (the proverbial uncanny valley). So, people walking down the street talking to themselves, as one might do wearing AirPods, can be deeply unappealing, particularly when important visual cues like the ubiquitous white spaghetti cords, are missing. We also expect our social interactions to be reciprocal, which makes a piece of technology that creates ambiguity (is he/she talking to me? why is he/she ignoring me?) extremely frustrating and rude. I fully expect this particular challenge to be addressed by Apple in the near future through some sort of simple fix, such as a soft LED on the tips of the antenna that glows when your AirPods are active. While such an enhancement may intrude on the privacy of the wearer, I believe that the broader social benefits will outweigh this concern. These are the sorts of intimate questions that designers like myself are grappling with on a daily basis at the moment, without any easy answers. That said, I always welcome the opportunity that products like AirPods create to rethink the neglected and utilitarian devices in our lives, particularly those that limit the way people like my father might experience the world. Let’s hope that 2020 brings many more such opportunities.