Get ready for the Alexa headphone explosion.
Up till now, there haven’t been too many headphones that integrate Amazon Alexa. There are certainly some you can buy — from high-end noise-canceling cans that fit over the ears to true-wireless models — but even when Alexa is present, its abilities are limited to a subset of what it can do on an Echo smart speaker.
That’s about to change in a big way. Qualcomm has developed an audio chipset specifically for headphones to integrate digital assistants like Alexa, and a reference design that incorporates the technology: a neckband-style pair of headphones lets you call up Amazon’s digital assistant at the touch of a button.
If you’re a headphone manufacturer, you’ll now have a much easier time building Alexa into your products. (Previously, manufacturers had to do a lot of their own development to bridge the divide between their audio tech and Amazon’s — 66 Audio told Fast Company it took the company two years to get it working right. They initially thought it would take a month.)
This all started to change in January 2018, when Amazon announced the Alexa Mobile Accessory (AMA) Kit, a set of tools any hardware maker can use to make their devices Alexa-friendly. Now Qualcomm is taking things even further: Their new chipset lets a wireless headset communicate with Amazon’s voice back end through the Alexa app on your iPhone or Android device.
“There are some products already in the market that have this capability, but this will be the first reference design developed in conjunction with Amazon,” says Anthony Murray, senior vice president and general manager of voice at Qualcomm. “We’ve done all the plumbing for the AMA protocol.”
The new chip lets Amazon play catch-up to Apple and Google. AirPods have had Siri integration since their launch almost two years ago, and Google’s Pixel Buds famously include Google Assistant, complete with real-time translation capabilities. The Pixel Buds, which came out in 2017, set off a wave of various headphone makers debuting designs with the Assistant, including the Bose QuietComfort 35 II, which made the feature a standout differentiator (with mixed results).
Qualcomm’s reference design is set to give Alexa headphones a similar push. But while there will certainly be everything from high-end noise-canceling designs to true wireless earbuds, one thing we won’t see are headphones that can call up a digital assistant just by speaking (without ever pressing a button). Even Apple’s AirPods require a tap to call up Siri, keynote-video liberties notwithstanding.
Murray says that’s on Qualcomm’s roadmap; the chipsets will be firmware-upgradeable to include the feature someday, but it’s not a possibility just yet.
“We are focused on getting this into the small in-ear earbuds, where you have a much smaller battery and much greater limitations on size. Having microphones running continually offers an even bigger challenge, because it’s clearly burning more power. This chip has hardware in there that supports that, and we expect to offer that as an incremental feature down the road.”
To recap … Talking to your digital assistant through your headphones: happening now. A whole mess of Alexa-powered headphones hitting store shelves: coming soon. Not even needing to raise a finger to activate them: someday.
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