With Apple’s acquisition of Beats this year, headphones have suddenly become a focal point for the consumer technology industry. If you look closely, though, you’ll realize that they’ve always been there.
We take headphones for granted. We forget they’re jammed in our ears or hanging around our neck. They were “wearable” back when the term meant the shirt at the top of the laundry pile. They have been feeding us data from our smartphones since smartphones existed. Yet they have remained at the margins of the wearable tech rush. Until Apple’s $3 billion buy, that is.
Apple AAPL -0.61% , as the company is wont to do, has said little about whether its acquisition was driven by talent (namely co-founders Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre), technology, or something else entirely. All CEO Tim Cook seems to talk about is how much he loves music. Yet in interviews with Fortune, leaders in headphone design and biometric research say that headphones have the ability to be much more than mere private audio listening devices.
Technophiles have spent the last couple of years obsessing about wearable technology—things like fitness bands, smart watches, and funny-looking glasses intended to give the wearer easier access to information about themselves and the world around them. For headphones, their pre-existing normality may be smart headphones’ ace in the competitive hole.
“Headphones were the first mass-accepted wearables,” says Noel Lee, founder and CEO of headphone maker Monster and the lead sound engineer for the original Beats headphones. Beats took that normality a step further by turning high-end headphones into fashion accessories fit for a rock or rap star.
But ears also happen to be great sources of biometric information. In many ways, headphones are a more logical place for digital health and sports functions than the electronic wristbands currently in vogue. “You can measure a lot more at the ear than at other parts of the body,” says Steven LeBoeuf, a specialist in ear biometrics at the sensor-design firm Valencell. That includes blood pressure, heart rate, ECG, and core body temperature, which is particularly tough to get from a wristband. Headphones may also be better at health monitoring than wristbands because putting them on is already a part of many people’s daily routines.
By combining biometric data with other sensors—GPS, an accelerometer, or an advanced sound processing unit—headphones could become a new kind of performance enhancer. “[Your headphones] could figure out if you’re cycling, or hunting, or golfing,” says I.P. Park, CTO of the audio device manufacturer Harman HAR 0.80% . “Based on the situation, maybe there are features and services these headphones could provide you.”