According to Futuresource Consulting, the hearables market has continued to demonstrate rapid growth, 60% year-on-year, from 2019 through to 2020, with COVID-19 inspired use-cases expected to propel it even further, to reach a forecasted $71 billion in 2024.
“Media playback remains the primary use-case for hearables, but communication has also seen an increase in importance, due in part to the pandemic,” according to Luke Pearce, Analyst at Futuresource Consulting. Compatibility to laptops and tablets and Active Noise Cancelling (ANC) feature sets have become must-haves for hearables to accommodate these use-cases.”
In stark contrast, 2020 has been a hard year for the hearing aid market due to COVID-19 restrictions resulting in consumers deferring visits to traditional audiologists, with figures suggesting the hearing aid market is down -17%.
However, 2021 could be an interesting one for hearing aids with the OTC Hearing Aid Regulation in the US (expected to be outlined later this year) effectively creating a new segment. In the US, it is anticipated that the OTC regulations will call for medically certified products that are free of audiologist support, unlocked and capable of being tuned by any certified professional for hearing impairments.
Due to the strict requirements for medical certification, Futuresource Consulting does not consider the regulations as an open invitation for CE vendors to flood the OTC market with true wireless products offering hearing correction features. It is more likely that both new investment-backed start-ups and traditional hearing aid vendors will release products into this segment, utilising new brands that both appeal to consumers and which do not diminish their existing high-end hearing healthcare business and audiologist channels.
“As and when OTC hearing devices are cleared for public use by regulatory bodies such as the FDA, it is expected that a significant portion of individuals with moderate hearing loss, as well as aging individuals experiencing hearing deterioration, will first opt for an OTC device due to budget and convenience benefits versus dedicated hearing devices,” adds Pearce.
Increasingly, hearables vendors are including conversational enhancement functionality to diversify intended use cases, expand the target consumer base and differentiate products.
Whilst these hearable devices do offer some level of hearing support, Futuresource believe they will not cross over into the realm of hearing aids, OTC or otherwise. However, hearables will provide assistance to those with mild to moderate hearing loss in certain situations and increase awareness of hearing loss for those who may have previously not been aware of such issues. Futuresource forecast around 10% of hearable devices could have these features by 2024, with 2021 seeing more products available on the market.
Eventually, the capabilities within hearables will reach parity with that available from hearing aids, and potentially even exceed their competencies in some areas. Those customers that require hearing correction will expect hearing aids to replicate the same technology as in hearables.
In addition to ANC, conversational enhancement and voice assistants, more features focused on health and wellness could soon find their way into smart hearable devices.
“Health & fitness remains primarily a sports-directive use-case in hearables for now. But the potential for further mass-market implementation of biometric sensors has been intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic and highlighted the need for further convergence between technology and health,” comments Pearce. “However, there remains significant barriers such as prolonged wear, competing devices such as wrist-worn wearables, and the software infrastructure to derive meaningful insights from biometric data.”