Ask, and your high-tech headphone shall serve you A-Z

A smart home robot called Xiaozhi (Little Smart) on display at an expo in Tianjin receives visitors' attention.
PHOTO: China Daily/Asia News Network

Smart hearables-you read it right.

No typo there, by the way.

You may own or have heard of smart wearables, multipurpose gadgets in the form of wrist-bands, bracelets, necklaces, so on.

They could soon become old hat as versatile hearables are in.

For example, a smart headphone can not only play music but "learn" about your preferences and programme itself to play what you will enjoy.

Beijing-based startup Vinci will ensure that.

"People are able to communicate with Vinci. You just need to say what you want, such as the name, singer, style of the music and your mood, and then the headphone will do as you ordered. We combine the hardware devices with software to create a new music experience," said David Zhu, Vinci's founder and CEO.

The startup is pioneering voice-controlled, eponymously branded headphones powered by artificial intelligence and featuring immersive 3-D sound.

The startup is at the forefront of innovation in the hearable devices industry.

In December 2016, Vinci was crowd-funded on Kickstarter, the world's largest such platform for creative projects, obtaining $987,384 (S$1.4 million).

Its achievements are brightening the record of China's headphone products in overseas markets.

Its headphones double up as personal assistants. A user can also check the weather, find local restaurants, schedule an appointment or dictate a text by just asking the headphone.

Vinci's headphones work independently of mobile phones, thus delivering on-the-go convenience.

That's not all. Like wearables, they can measure your heartbeat rate and track your physical activity like running, using built-in sensors and GPS technology.

Zhu said he got the inspiration for hearable technology from observing people's outdoor music listening habits.

"We found many people listen to music while walking outside, but they use several things such as earphone, smartphone, armband for the purpose. We wanted to create an easier way for them to listen to music," Zhu said, adding the all-in-one device makes for a good companion.

The screens on both sides of the headphone show the music that is being played, and users could stop or pause the music, or change the volume, by just swiping or tapping the screen.

Founded in 2014, the firm is making its presence felt in the mobile technology sector.

It now has about 60 employees, with 80 per cent of them driving research and development.

Most of them graduated from top universities and have worked at big tech companies such as Baidu Inc and Huawei Technologies Co Ltd for five to 10 years.

Vinci the firm introduced 10,000 units of Vinci 1.0 headphones in 2015. Each smart hearable costs 1,799 yuan (S$370.10).

It plans to launch Vinci 1.5 later this month.

"The smart headphone market will witness an explosive growth this year, and many tech giants will tap into this field in the second half of 2017.

With the rise of artificial intelligence and voice interaction, this field will definitely be hot," Zhu said.

Liu Ting, a clerk at an educational institution, said: "I want to have a try as I have never used this kind of device to listen to music before. I could talk with my headphone? That's very cool."

'Assistants' set for explosive growth

The electronics segment related to voice-operated smart or artificial intelligence-powered gadgets is seeing explosive growth, with personal assistant devices leading the way.

Amazon's Alexa, the voice service that powers Echo, provides capabilities or skills that enable customers to interact with devices in a more intuitive way using voice.

Examples of these skills include the ability to play preferred music, answer general questions and set an alarm or timer.

Among AI-powered personal assistants, Apple's Siri, Google's Assistant and Microsoft's Cortana are prominent names.

iFlytek Co, a leading Chinese firm engaged in speech- and voice-recognition technologies, has made much efforts to promote the application of intelligent voice technology in mobile phones, automobiles, home appliances, toys and a number of other fields.

It has garnered more than 70 per cent of market share in the Chinese speech technology market, and taken the lead in the formation of the Chinese speech industry supply chain.

According to the statistics from Speech Industry Alliance of China (SIAC) the scale of the global intelligent voice industry will reach $10.5 billion by 2017, with a growth rate of 29.6 per cent.

Technology consultancy Gartner Inc predicts that 30 per cent of human interactions with technology will be through "conversations" with smart machines by 2018.

The voice-based AI technology is now widely used in the intelligent home field.

Users can use voice to control lighting, thermostat, home appliances, garage shutter and even security systems.

Andrew Ng, Baidu Inc's chief scientist, said: "As speech recognition accuracy goes from 95 per cent to 99 per cent, all of us in the room will go from barely using it to using it all the time."

According to comScore, 50 per cent of all searches will be voice searches by 2020.

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