“Wearables Wars” is AR Insider’s mini-series that examines how today’s wearables will pave the way and prime consumer markets for AR glasses. Each installment will profile a different tech leader’s moves and motivations in wearables. For more, subscribe to ARtillery PRO.

Common wisdom states that mobile AR is the forbear to smart glasses. Before the latter achieves consumer-friendly specs and price points, AR’s delivery system is the device we all have in our pockets. There, it can seed user demand for AR and get developers to start thinking spatially.

That’s still the case, but a less-discussed product class could have a greater impact in priming consumer markets for AR glasses: wearables. As we’ve examined, AR glasses’ cultural barriers could be lessened to some degree by conditioning consumers to sensors on their bodies.

Tech giants show signs of recognizing this, and are developing various flavors of wearables. Like in our ongoing “follow the money” exercise, they’re each building wearables strategies that support or future-proof core businesses where tens of billions in annual revenues are at stake.

For example, Apple’s wearables are seeing strong revenue growth and offsetting smartphone revenue deceleration in the near term. Long term, we could see a holistic suite of wearables — including glasses — replace the current suite of iThings at the center of our computing lives.

Highly Motivated

But what’s everyone else doing? After examining Amazon and Microsoft, it’s time to zero in on Google. It has entered the wearables race in a number of ways including its Pixel Buds. It also acquired FitBit late last year as a move to buttress its lingering WearOS platform.

But as always, the first question is ‘why?’. Google’s motivations for wearables are similar to Apple, Amazon and Microsoft: to protect and future-proof its core business. For Google that of course means search. So widening the funnel for bringing people into search is the name of the game.

Several Google moves over the past decade had that same underlying goal. That includes things as broad as Android (drives mobile search) to voice search (varied search formats). Meanwhile, Google’s AR play is visual search, which similarly traces back to the goal of driving search volume.

Back to wearables, the same endgame is in play. But unlike the above software-based initiatives, we’re talking hardware. That means a literal touchpoint to users. Like with Amazon and Microsoft, this is a sort of trojan horse for positioning Google’s core product closer to users’ sensory nerves.

Sound Investment

So far, Google’s most notable wearables investment is with hearables. Though Apple has a big head start, Google appears to have its eyes on a hearables future given its less-popular Pixel Buds. Though not as sleek, they’re a vessel for a superior voice/AI engine: Google Assistant.

In fact, Apple’s Achilles heel for AirPods is the famously inept Siri. Google Assistant will win the voice search and “general knowledge” AI game, based on the extensiveness of Google’s knowledge graph. It can process voice queries and answer questions with greater reliability.

And this could be a winning factor. Hardware sleekness can be improved much easier than a quality AI engine can be built. So Apple will have to counterbalance Siri’s detriments by creating more killer apps for AirPods, or by opening up the innovation to developers like it’s done with ARkit.

Google also wins on sheer scale. Apple’s AirPods have a total addressable market of about 900 million global iPhones. Android however has a much larger global base of devices that is closer to 2.5 billion. Most of those aren’t yet compatible with Pixel Buds but it’s a larger shell to grow into.

Killer Audio Apps

So what will Pixel Buds do with that knowledge-graph backbone? This is where some of the potential “audio AR” killer apps come into the conversation. Hearables today are more about phone calls or music, but the real potential is in situationally-aware and intelligent notifications.

For example, AR can add lots of value in local discovery as we examined recently. This is an area Google has already cultivated with local search, given that proximity drives search intent. Audio AR will play into this with audio cues in commerce contexts like a store aisle or finding a bar.

Either way, the vision is for an all-day ambient audio channel for personalized messaging. This can happen through traditional google searches (pull) in the case of voice queries. It can also happen through predictive alerts (push) which Google is already developing through Assistant.

Speaking of Google Assistant, a potentially compelling audio AR use case is real-time language translation. Google Assistant already does this, but when brought directly to your ear, this could be a true utility for seamless foreign language translation on the fly — a true killer app for traveling.

Share of Ear

The above scenarios align with Google’s smartphone-era construct of “micro-moments.” These are the content snacking moments in the grocery line or subway — pulling out your phone for a quick fix of email, Instagram or Twitter. It created a media (and ad) delivery greenfield.

But audio’s advantage is discreetness. It’s less cumbersome than pulling out your phone. And because AR glasses are held back by cultural and stylistic factors, the subtlety of ambient audio could fill a key gap before they arrive. All-day use also creates lots of content “inventory.”

This raises another concept we’ve been toying with: share of ear. Given that we’re inundated with visual stimuli, there’s a zero-sum competitive landscape for capturing that attention. But ambient audible stimulus throughout the day is still a greenfield. This is where Google is salivating.

The place where “share of ear” gets the most attention is smart speakers, which is the wrong discussion. Smart speakers seem to be a favorite topic for the tech press, but the 200-million installed base is dwarfed by a potential accessory that piggybacks on 3.4 billion smartphones.

We’ll be back with more breakdowns of players developing wearables strategies. Next up: Bose.

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Disclosure: AR Insider has no financial stake in the companies mentioned in this post, nor received payment for its production. Disclosure and ethics policy can be seen here.

Header image credit: Google