You know that a technology is becoming a trend to watch when the Economist writes a piece on the topic. We know how big an investment goes into monetizing visual content for our phones, pads and TVs, through the likes of Warner Media, Disney and Netflix. Now there’s a big push into monetizing our ears, driven by Apple and others on the hardware side and Spotify and Liberty Media on the content side. The audio market is still much smaller but it’s growing fast. Apple’s AirPods are guessed to be the fastest growing of all its product lines and are expected to top $15B in sales next year. Spotify and others are aggressively expanding in streaming and also, interestingly, podcasts. Podcasts apparently have better economics than music for audio streaming services.
These directions and more are encouraging further advances in connectivity to our ears. The Bluetooth SIG announced at this year’s CES their latest 5.2 advance to the core Bluetooth specification, and a new software framework on top of the standard called LE Audio. Together these offer higher quality at lower power in wireless earbuds, along with some amazing new possibilities.
I’ve written before on the topic of true wireless stereo (TWS) in earbuds. Pre 5.2, Bluetooth is a single-channel wireless connection. Left and right audio channels must be transmitted together through that one audio channel to one earbud, say the left. From there, the right audio channel is transmitted wirelessly to the right earbud. This runs batteries down faster and introduces a delay between L and R channels. Vendors have built proprietary solutions to overcome the latency problem but they’re a hack and obviously not shareable between different phone models.
5.2 adds isochronous communication channels over BLE so can transmit L and R simultaneously. Latency problem solved, no longer any need to run down earbud batteries in wireless forwarding and the solution is based on a standard so should be shareable between phone and earbud models. This goes further. An additional channel is supported for voice; you can speak at the same time you’re listening. Full duplex conversations through your earbuds!
The Bluetooth SIG has bigger ambitions still. LE Audio is a software framework on top the core standard; it is expected to be ratified some time in 2020. It adds a new LC3 codec, allowing for tuning between audio quality and power and enabling higher quality than the existing standard, when appropriate.
LE Audio supports many-to-one and one-to many connections. You can connect to multiple sources: a music player, your phone and a TV, and be able to switch between these, even allowing all to be active simultaneously, one dominant and the others turned down. For one-to-many, you can share your audio stream with others. You’re listening to a great song and want your friends to hear it too? Just share the stream. Or you can all watch a video on a phone or laptop while each enjoying a direct audio stream to your own earbuds.
Here’s another cool thing you’ll be able to do. You’re at a sports bar, lots of screens showing lots of games, but all silently. It would be a mess if the audio from each was playing at the same time, right? You walk into the bar, see a game that interests you and grab the audio stream from that game. Now you can watch and listen. Or you’re in an airport departure lounge, trying to keep up to date on messages that might affect you flight. This is the reverse of the sport bar. Announcements in airports are all full volume, overlapping and competing for your attention. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to grab an audio stream for announcements just on your flight? And turn all those loudspeakers off?
There’s good news also for hearing-aid users. With these kinds of capabilities, they should be able to better hear suitably-equipped speakers in presentations and in other noisy surroundings.
CEVA is a broad-line supplier for Bluetooth solutions including Low Energy (supporting LE Audio) and Dual Mode (supporting Classic Audio and LE Audio). They also provide a wide range of related audio solutions: voice pickup, VAD, audio input and beamforming, AEC and ANC and speech recognition. And they provide solutions for gestures detection. taps, head movements. You can learn more about the Bluetooth platforms HERE and audio, voice and speech solutions HERE.