It’s hard to believe that we’re entering a new decade. Ten years ago, audio tech such as voice enablement, like Alexa, wasn’t even a reality, and in the past two decades alone, web and mobile have completely transformed the industry and life as we know it. Today, these technologies are integral to our everyday lives. So, what will the next 10 look like for audio?
In my opinion, voice will continue to be the next big disruptor in the new decade. Here’s five key trends I think will have a big impact in 2020 and beyond:
- Voice in unexpected places
- Voice as the main user interface (UI)
- 3D audio
- Noise suppression
- Blending of hardware and software
Let’s dive into these a little deeper. After the iPhone, voice enablement is arguably the most notable advancement in recent years. We use products such as Alexa in our homes to check the weather, set timers while we’re cooking and play our favorite music. In the U.S. alone, about a quarter of homes have smart speakers in them. In 2020, we’ll see voice enablement adoption continue to strengthen, and show up in unexpected places like bathrooms, showers, toilets, couches, kitchen appliances and more. Now that we’re connected in the home, it’s only natural for us to have this technology wherever we are. We’ll also see voice become more sophisticated, using AI and machine learning to learn our exact preferences and habits, and allow integration into key features of products, for example, turning on and off noise cancellation in headphones.
Building on this, audio is changing as voice has become front and center as a UI for products. But why is voice becoming preferred over touch? The reason for this is that it’s simply more user friendly. It transcends languages and ages and is easy for everyone to use. The elderly segment already prefers voice to touch. It’s a great tool to remind a loved one to take their medication, alert emergency services, or simply be a companion. This also means that microphones are more important than ever in products to properly capture commands and preferences. Additionally, voice will radically change the way we interact with technology in healthcare. It can be used to help keep a doctor’s hands free while assisting patients, and it’s even being used to detect the emotional state of the patient. This is an interesting area to keep an eye on, as the healthcare industry has enormous potential to implement voice in unique and powerful ways.
Another trend I see growing is 3D audio. In today’s world, we’re inundated with 3D movies, 3D printing, and 3D smartphones — but we rarely discuss 3D audio which is an integral part to immersive experiences. 3D audio makes you feel like you are really there when you’re playing your favorite video game, and goes beyond gaming and movies, which is an easy and growing application, and extends into the business world. For example, when’s the last time you’ve been on a teleconference call that had quality audio and made you feel like the person was in the same room as you? Bet your answer is never. As the workforce continues to become more remote, they’ll need enhanced collaboration tools and products to better support these fundamental changes in how people work.
Noise suppression is another area where audio will continue to innovate. As I mentioned before, consumers are pushing for voice and sound in unexpected places. However, formulating products for these hostile sound environments can be challenging. How do you cut the background noise out from the shower? How do you create great sounding audio, without the wind and city noise when you’re outside? How can you project volume from a small space such as inside a couch? As we continue to innovate and push sound and audio to new realms, we also have to address how to solve these challenges. The good news is that there are solutions, such as full-stack integration of software and hardware, like Sonique, which is Harman’s proprietary technology solution that enables a powerful far-field voice capability. Here, picking a technology that has noise cancellation, echo cancellation, ambient noise reduction, and beamforming helps solve for these challenges and increases the accuracy of voice capture in a noisy environment.
Last, you are starting to see the blending of hardware and software to improve the audio within products as mentioned above. As mics and speakers become smart, we must provide true software innovation that enhances sound, reduces noise, EQ’s automatically, etc. for consumers. A great example of where you are seeing this need is in PC’s. No longer does a PC just need to have great sound, but it also needs to be a conferencing system that provides 360 audio. This has to be solved by the integration of mics, speakers and software.
With consumer adoption of voice ever-growing, I’m confident that we’ll see voice technology become increasingly sophisticated, and travel with us wherever we go. From voice enablement in your kitchen sink, to your regularly scheduled doctor’s appointment and more, the audio industry is in an interesting spot to continue to disrupt and innovate how we interact with technology every day.
David Owens is the vice president and general manager of business development and strategic partnerships at Harman Embedded Audio. He has over 30 years of experience as a customer electronics executive, with a special focus on partnerships that drive unique business opportunities. Prior to Harman, David held key positions within Sprint including VP of Marketing and SVP of Product.