MADISON, Wis. — Earbuds are not widely esteemed as a hotbed for new technology development. But while few people were watching, these little audio gadgets have undergone a remarkable evolution, as demonstrated at the Consumer Electronics Show last month.
Launching a new era for earbuds is a team of engineers at Qualcomm — formerly at Cambridge Silicon Radio (CSR) — known for their technical chops in wireless connectivity and audio technology. Qualcomm acquired CSR in 2015.
Until recently, the biggest advance in earbuds was when they went totally wireless, as seen in Apple’s Airpods. While Apple got a lot of flack for their decision to forgo a headphone jack on their iPhones, this started a trend to cut the cord between a music source and earbuds, or between earbuds.
Audio processors go inside earbuds
However, with its new Bluetooth SoC, dubbed QCC5100, Qualcomm isn’t just proposing low-power Bluetooth wireless connectivity between handsets and earbuds. Qualcomm is putting a whole new audio and application subsystem inside earbuds. In other words, now that earbuds have their own batteries, designers can put an SoC inside.
The QCC5100 is just such an SoC. Its quad-core processing architecture consists of two application processors and two DSP units, making an extensive degree of parallel processing possible.
Chris Havell, a senior director at Qualcomm, told us, “Processors inside the earbuds can do a lot of things.” He predicted versatile headset applications ranging from enhancing streamed music to eliminating ambient noise, offering better voice assistant capabilities and even measuring biometrics that take advantage of earbuds inside ears.
Havell cited several factors that have enabled earbud evolution. The most obvious is the popular adoption of portable devices. Consumers on the go want to stay connected, and don’t want to sound fidelity clipped just because their technology is wireless, he noted.
Paul Erickson, a senior analyst at IHS Markit, observed that Bluetooth headphones have been “a source of reliable, double-digit growth” over the past several years. Demand is driven by two factors, said Erickson: “an ever-increasing installed base of mobile devices” and “changes in the way consumers consume media.”
More important, though, is that people are beginning to look to headsets for applications beyond entertainment. A rapidly growing need is for better voice enabled by headsets and earbuds, Qualcomm’s Havell said.
Attention to voice has escalated with the proliferation of smart speakers such as Amazon Echo and Google Home. “But think about it, it makes even more sense to have better voice on headsets/earbuds,” said Havell. “People use them for phone conversation, and voice-assistant applications.” Consumers on the go don’t have a large screen in front of them, thus making voice-triggered search applications, for example, even more crucial.
Qualcomm also foresees the use of earbuds for capturing biometric information. At a time when consumers are already more than willing to use sensors embedded in smartphones for their fitness/health applications, their own ears present an additional target for applications that probe a user’s health status — including temperature and heart rate, explained Havell.
Further, earbuds can provide location information about the user’s head, providing to handset applications such information as which way the user is heading or into which direction he is looking.
IHS analyst Erickson described Qualcomm as a leading thinker on the headset/earbud front. “They have a lot of interesting visions,” he said. Although the notion of earbuds collecting biometric data might capture some imagination, Erickson sees it still as “a niche market.” Where the sweet spot is, and what people are willing to pay, are earbuds that can offer “noise cancellation,” he predicted.
Continue to page two on Embedded's sister site, EE Times: “Earbuds go beyond entertainment.”