Smart hearing aids and smart glasses advance the human-machine interface

Two interesting products at CES 2109 showcase the coming future of the machine-human interface: the Livio AI smart hearing aid and the North Focals smart glasses. Here’s how these two products could work together and what the future of a more tightly integrated solution might look like.

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Two of the most interesting products I ran into at CES were the Starkey Livio AI smart hearing aid and North Focals smart glasses. This is the first time I’ve really considered that a new kind of sensory paradigm might significantly advance the machine-human interface. This could be used to not only enhance and protect hearing for folks who don’t need hearing aids, but, coupled with the smart glasses, the smart hearing aid could redefine whether we even need a smartphone…and possibly make that class of device redundant.

Let’s talk about how the machine-human interface is changing in the context of this new AI-driven audio interface/hearing aid and advanced smart glasses.

Man-machine interface

We are going down a path that will eventually, and likely surgically, lead to machine (computer) interfaces with all of our senses. Right now, in market we have VR and AR headsets that create a more advanced interface with our eyes. We have this Livio AI hearing aid or headphones that create an interface with our ears.  And while the industry is still struggling with touch and scent, we’re making progress on both fronts.

But the more senses you can intercept, change and augment, the more tightly integrated you become with the machine that these things are connected to. Certainly, this means more compelling AR/VR experiences, but these integrations can also improve our interaction with the real world – providing translations in real time, for example, or notifications/alerts, answers to critical (or frivolous) questions and tighter connections to the medical apps that increasingly surround us.

At some point in the not-too-distant future, almost everything we see, hear, feel and smell will be filtered, altered and maybe even completely taken over by the ever-smarter machine this stuff is connected to. I expect that this “machine” will be in the cloud and not on your person.

North Focals smart glasses

What makes the North Focals different is that they focus on a custom fit and doing a few things well. They won’t be great with AR games like Pokémon Go, but they do give you alerts and messages very discreetly and, for those that wear prescription glasses, they can replace them.

Much of the problems I’ve had testing AR/VR headsets and glasses is they tend to be one size fits all, and one size doesn’t fit me very well. This tends to make the result both uncomfortable and sub-optimal. They really need to be professionally fitted. North addressed that by only selling their solution through their stores and including custom fitting in the experience.

Much like the first iPod was only focused on doing a few things well, in their current form these glasses mostly just do text, not video. And they lack a camera (which will undoubtedly come later). But this makes the glasses lighter, less expensive and a very focused product. It’s generally better to do a few things well than a lot of things poorly, which was what we learned from the first wave of iPods.

Ideal for alerts, navigation and for keeping your smartphone in your pocket, these glasses provide a covert way to keep track of your messages and alerts, both in meetings and other places where pulling your phone out would be problematic. They also have a unique finger mouse that allows you to navigate the menus and messages covertly as well.

The glasses can hear but they don’t have speakers, leaving the door open for a creative audio solution.

Starkey Livio AI smart hearing aid

Since these two distinct products weren’t designed to work together there is some overlap, but the Livio AI smart hearing aid largely picks up where the North Focals smart glasses leave off. This “hearing aid” not only enhances the sound in the room but measures heart rate, offers body and brain tracking, has fall detection, can read you your alerts and does voice-to-text transcription and translation (both of which the glasses can also do). The Livio AIs are also designed to be good with music and entertainment, so when a future version of the glasses can show video, the hearing aid could provide the audio track.

The Livio AIs would generally also be custom-fitted (as are most hearing aids), and the result would be a far tighter and less intrusive interface with your smartphone or PC.

The blend

Combining the two products would get you both audio and text alerting and updates, a choice between speech-to-text and speech-to-speech translation, and full hands-free integration with communications apps. You’d also get a choice of digital assistants – either the one bundled with the Livio AI or Amazon’s Alexa.

The headache would be that you’d need to do most of the integration between the two devices yourself, as they weren’t designed to work together. But you can easily imagine a future when they were and would automatically hand off functions based on what was best for the location and/or function.

In the end, though, I think these two devices showcase a coming future where the way we interface with our machines is more natural and better-integrated with our own senses.

I can hardly wait till the North folks integrate entertainment, because the Livio AI is already good with music…and then you could instantly shift from work to play as needed and/or to combat boredom.

In any case, the combination of smart glasses and smart hearing aids at CES gives us yet another view of the coming (welcome) future of machine-human integration.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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