AI's Takeover of Wireless Earbuds Is Here, Whether You Like It or Not

Maybe our ears, not our eyes, are the best home for AI to live.

Nothing's Ear (2024) wireless earbuds with ANC and the Nothing Ear A wireless earbuds in yellow.
Photograph by Raymond Wong

If there’s even the slightest opening to cram AI into a gadget, tech companies are taking it.

Sometimes that can be interesting (see: Humane’s Ai Pin) and sometimes it can be disastrous (see also: the Ai Pin), but one thing is clear: Purveyors of tech are willing to experiment.

Startups like Rabbit, which makes the Teenage Engineering-designed Pokédex-like R1 device, have been quick to jump on the trend, but naturally, big tech is poised to move the needle even more. Already, we’ve gotten hints about a collaboration between former Apple design chief Jony Ive and OpenAI, and just last week Google nodded to a Google Glass revival powered by its impressive Astra computer vision.

That’s a lot of AI hardware in the works. But in the fixation on AI pendants, pins, and glasses, we might be missing the real and more immediate winner of the AI gadget craze.

The Age of AI Wireless Earbuds

Nothing became the first company to explicitly integrate ChatGPT as a voice assistant into its wireless earbuds.

Photograph by Raymond Wong

Already, tech companies interested in the confluence of AI and hardware are zeroing in on a gadget you might be using right now — your Bluetooth wireless earbuds.

The most recent and realest example of that goal comes from Nothing and its line of phones and wireless earbuds. Specifically, its Ear wireless earbuds now integrate with ChatGPT so that owners of both Nothing’s phones and wireless earbuds can launch a ChatGPT voice assistant with a simple squeeze gesture on the buds.

The idea here is that the integration makes the prospect of replacing your regular voice assistant — in this case, Google Assistant — a lot easier, and on that front, it succeeds. With Nothing’s Phone 2 and Ear wireless earbuds, I used ChatGPT seamlessly, launching all sorts of queries that I might otherwise reserve for voice assistants that aren’t powered by a Large Language Model (LLM) like ChatGPT.

In practice, I still have some major complaints. ChatGPT and other LLMs are still disconcertingly variable, so there’s a constant push and pull between wanting to rely on chatbots for usable information, but not being able to trust whether they’re actually delivering it. And that’s not even acknowledging other technical glitches I ran into — once activated, ChatGPT wouldn’t stop listening in on me, for one. Can someone say privacy nightmare?

But somewhat shoddy early experience aside, the actual idea of putting ChatGPT into a gadget like wireless earbuds holds up in the same way that the idea of smart glasses does. While companies like Meta and Google have moved toward glasses-like gadgets with similar technology, the reception to walking around with AI on your face hasn’t been exactly well-received. Let’s not forget Google Glass literally invented a new pejorative: “Glasshole.”

Meta’s Ray-Bans smart glasses might have similar goals, but haven’t exactly taken off yet.

Photograph by Raymond Wong

Conversely, Meta’s AR Ray-Bans glasses haven’t been forced to endure the same level of backlash, but they haven’t exactly exploded in popularity either, despite being their second generation.

So, as the vision of AI and and face-worn hardware has struggled to connect, tech companies have turned to alternatives. They’ve turned to your ears.

Not Just Experimental

Nothing isn’t the only tech company looking to imbue wireless earbuds with AI. A recent report from The Information suggests Meta is interested in making “camerabuds” — AI wireless earbuds or over-ear headphones with cameras in them. To be clear, the goal of said cameras wouldn’t be for photography’s sake, but for computer vision capabilities similar to those found in the company’s Ray-Bans.

That means, if the wireless earbuds or headphones work as advertised, you could theoretically use them for conducting multimodal searches of things in your environment or for accessibility purposes, like describing things near you.

What shape that gadget takes, or whether it takes any shape, remains to be seen, but what’s interesting is that Meta would consider making it in the first place — after all, wireless earbuds and headphones are a category that Meta has never touched, so this wouldn’t just be a feature update, it’d be a ground-up addition to its product lineup.

And Meta isn’t alone in its reported ambitions, either. According to Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman, even Apple is looking into making AirPods with cameras in them with, I assume, a similar goal in mind. And there’s no doubt in my mind that Apple could supercharge Siri in AirPods with a healthy shot of AI (either on-device or piped through connected Apple devices).

That’s right, AirPods might get the AI treatment eventually, too.

Photograph by Raymond Wong

On one hand, the entrance of wireless earbuds into the AI gadget conversation could be just a natural extension of AI’s slow march into basically every piece of tech we use on a daily basis. On the other hand, it could be a pointed shift to a form factor that people are more comfortable with.

While smart glasses make sense in a lot of ways, the idea of superimposing the abilities of a smartphone onto your eyeballs is a big ask. For lots of valid reasons, we’re increasingly averse to the idea of omnipresent screens in front of our eyeballs and, from a more technical perspective, making a device with a functional screen and enough power to do real computing in a form factor and size people would want to wear is challenging.

It turns ChatGPT, for example, into an AI assistant inside your head as opposed to one that’s actively altering your vision of the world around you.

Tucking AI and its capabilities into your ears, however, feels naturally less intrusive. It turns ChatGPT, for example, into an AI assistant inside your head as opposed to one that’s actively altering your vision of the world around you. And the absence of cameras that are capable of capturing your environment for later viewing makes that psychological aversion even less of a risk.

It’s hard to say since the idea of AI wireless earbuds is so new, but there’s a chance that people might respond more positively to that lower footprint — especially if they find AI-powered wireless earbuds useful. And coupled with what seems like a steady climb in speed (and hopefully accuracy) of LLMs like ChatGPT, useful is something those buds might actually be.

In our new era of superpowered AI, there is going to be some trial and error. Maybe wireless earbuds with LLMs slapped onto them might be a part of that process, but maybe they might be the home we’ve been waiting for all along.

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