In late 2012, Apple finally replaced the iconic white earbuds that came with every iPod and iPhone since 2001 with a new design: EarPods, a three-year labor of love, which the company claimed was a one-size-fits-all headphones solution for the human ear.
Could an update to this ubiquitous accessory become Apple’s entry into the wearables market, defying expectations of an iWatch?
The Ear Up There
In-ear headphones are the wearable device we don’t think about. Like a wristband, it has contact with our skin—and if you listen to music when you exercise, you know it’s a fitness device.
And as you can tell just by looking for the white wires dangling from people’s ears, they’re popular. I reviewed EarPods when they first came out. They were better than earbuds in every way.
Many observers believe that iOS 8, the next version of Apple’s mobile operating system for iPhones and iPads, will have substantial new health features. Some believe that a long-rumored iWatch could be the way Apple captures data from our bodies to feed into this new software. But it’s not clear we want or need another device on our wrists.
A (Financially) Healthy Solution
Enter the EarPods.
“Apple, I don’t think a lot of people of realize, is one of the biggest providers of speakers in the entire world,” Greg Joswiak, Apple’s VP of iOS and iPod marketing, told me back in 2012. “Think about it: Sound is so important to our product, we integrate sound and speakers in just about every product we do.”
Apple sells its normal EarPods for just $30. Comparable headphones from Beats cost $100, which means Apple has left itself plenty of room to sell premium headphones that can actually do more than rival headphones.
But what more could you want your headphones to do, besides play quality sound? Apple’s patent portfolio offers a few hints.
Check out this image from a March 2007 patent application. It proposes headsets with “one or more integrated physiological sensors” designed to help users track performance metrics. As you can see in the image, the sensor could be clipped onto one’s earlobe, and thus be able to transmit pulse and oxygen information.
Another patent application filed in August 2008 described a similar monitoring system that could “be used to monitor user activity, such as during exercise or sporting activities. The positioning of the monitoring system can also facilitate sensing of other user characteristics (e.g., biometric data), such as temperature, perspiration and heart rate.”
It would make sense for Apple to build these smart EarPods: Physicians have tried to develop similar in-ear monitoring systems that can inform doctors about cardiovascular risk factors, which would allow them to provide vital preventative care. The science is there. Researchers believe the ear is the “[ideal] location for an integrated wearable vital signs monitor … for both physiological and mechanical reasons.”
Unfortunately, a health-oriented in-ear solution has never been perfected, especially at a mass scale. One reason why: Fitness devices are sexy, and send the message that you’re into exercising and taking care of yourself. Medical-device manufacturers have never been known for their fashion sense, and a health-oriented device sends the message that you’ve got a problem.
Apple’s proven design sense and marketing skills would avoid these problems handily.
EarPods and iOS 8 could help keep users healthy, without the suggestion of illness. The key will be designing subtle interfaces for this information. If you’re exercising, you’ll want to see vital signs like heart rate at a glance without needing to dig for it. Apple’s solution could be as simple as displaying one’s pulse or oxygen levels as iOS notifications—or perhaps Siri could read off the data.
The danger of delivering this functionality using headphones is that they take a beating, getting plugged in, yanked out, and stuffed into pockets multiple times a day. I own two different sets of EarPods and both of them are dysfunctional. The wires are still highly vulnerable to movement and tangle too easily, while the volume and play controls simply don’t work anymore. Apple will have to put as much thought into those basics as fancy new features to make EarPods usable as wearable health devices.
If Apple wants to popularize “getting healthy,” it will need to offer a stylish, comfortable, and most of all durable product that plays music, carries phone calls crisply, and—as a side benefit—captures data from our bodies. If Apple can pull off these basics, which are imperfect features in the current-generation EarPods, owners of Apple’s next version should be very happy customers.
It also fits Apple’s pattern of improving devices until they are transformed. The humble EarPod, turned into the ultimate wearable. With all of its competitors looking at their wrists, will Apple beat them all to our ears?