Sony explains why people will want to buy its new in-ear virtual assistant

Xperia Ear with Xperia XSonyThe Xperia Ear to the left of an Xperia X smartphone.

Sony announced a slew of new products at projects it is working on at Mobile World Congress on Monday, ranging from its “X” series Xperia smartphones to a number of concepts — including a portable projector and a 360-degrees spherical lens camera that can be attached to a piece of clothing.

One of the most surprising announcements was actually a fairly old idea.

The Xperia Ear is a wireless earpiece that connects to an Android smartphone via Bluetooth or NFC. The earpiece quietly updates the user about their next meeting, whether they need to pack an umbrella that day, and news headlines. It also responds to voice commands, so the user can make a call or search the web. It lasts for about 3.5 hours of continuous use.

As with any wearable launch, Sony needs to answer the “why do I need this?” question.

We asked Sony’s senior manager of product experience marketing, Jun Makino, what the thinking is. Bluetooth headsets have been around for years and have never gone mainstream — and they’re largely seen as an uncool piece of tech, associated with used car salesmen.

While a step on from the original idea of a Bluetooth headset, do we need an Xperia Ear? And are we really going to talk to our in-ear devices out loud, when they are so well-hidden?

He explained:

Imagine having a personal assistant always there for you on standby, getting things done for you. If you want to know about an upcoming appointment, rather than checking your smartphone you do it just by popping it into your ear and it will inform you, as well as news, as well as weather.

Because the Xperia Ear has a sensor, by putting it on at that relevant timing it will give you information so that you don’t have to talk to it. You can prep yourself if it’s going to rain, by packing an umbrella.

This is a kind of natural interaction. Like we are doing right now, we are talking to each other. I’m not writing text to you right now. The natural communication is talking and we want to see how much we can bring this kind of natural user interaction into a new product. Its kind of a voice, a smart communication. So I wouldn’t see it as a kind of barrier, but instead you’re going back to a natural way of communication as a human being.

Makino said it’s also a lot more natural for people to wear devices inside their ears — most of us have a pair of headphones — than other wearable devices.

Xperia Ear Grey Design SonyThe Xperia Ear in its travel case.

He couldn’t comment on how big the market might be for a product like the Xperia Ear, but said “we see big potential” because it addresses a “change in behaviour about how you communicate.”

Makino said: “It’s not like the moment we sell it, it is going to go mass mass. It obviously does need to follow a trend pattern, going into the more technical types of audiences, and then trickling it down into more mass. So we are working closely together with those types of consumers who are really looking to explore new types of experiences.”

The Xperia Ear will launch in “summer 2016.” Pricing details are not yet available.

Thomas Husson, Forrester analyst said of the launch: “Sony’s Xperia Ear offers a glimpse into the future when consumers will be able to access virtual assistants powered by Artificial Intelligence. Expect the same play from Apple following Beats’ acquisition. That said, Sony won’t be able to leverage this innovation because it lacks differentiation in the Android world.”

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