Torben Christiansen, Director of Technology at EPOS

PCR Feb issue Audio Tech: Hearing is believing

PCR talks to Torben Christiansen, Director of Technology at EPOS to find out what 2021 will sound like and some of the trends we can expect on the audio horizon

The face of audio tech is evolving, and we’re witnessing remarkable changes – from the rise of voice assistants and AI embedded into audio equipment, to wireless earbuds with biometric capabilities.

Torben Christiansen, Director of Technology at EPOS – a premium audio brand highlights the trends set to shape 2021 and beyond.

Please could you start by telling me a bit about EPOS?
Based on leading and advanced technologies, EPOS is a Danish founded company delivering high-end audio and video solutions for business professionals and the gaming community, with design, technology and performance as paramount parameters. EPOS was established in November 2019 as a result of the decision to let the business segments of the joint venture – known as Sennheiser Communications – between Sennheiser electronic GmbH & Co. KG and Demant A/S evolve into different set-ups.

EPOS is part of the Demant Group – audio and hearing technology group. It builds on more than 115 years of experience of working with innovation and sound. The EPOS headquarters are in Copenhagen, Denmark with the company operating in a global market with offices and partners in more than 30 countries.

Focusing on audio devices what new solutions do you see on the horizon?
Although wireless solutions have been common for some time, there is no doubt that we’re heading towards a true wireless future in enterprise with products across the board. Consumers now expect the same convenience they experience with everyday technology in the workplace.

Over the next year and beyond, we can anticipate greater cross functionality with professional and lifestyle audio devices. However, the major challenge for enterprise products will come down to quality – what might work for listening to a podcast won’t suit individual’s professional needs. While there has been great progress, the technology standard needed to facilitate enterprise requirements is still in its infancy.

For instance, when it comes to quality of voice pick up, if we consider the true wireless market today, you might find that 99% of the available products, ‘voice pick up’ technology is adequate but far from perfect. Big tech and audio players have their sights set on addressing this gap because they understand that for businesses; the 0.5% of what you miss during a call becomes 100% of your concern. Beyond establishing cross-functionality, voice pick-up technologies will become an increasingly important part of their next big bet – services by voice, which by nature, necessitate quality.

How is the audio market set to grow over the coming year, what changes are you seeing?
Over the last few months a clear opportunity for education has emerged – businesses simply do not have extensive knowledge of the audio solutions available for the workplace. For 20% of organisations EPOS surveyed who have decreased spending in audio equipment over the last two years, this decrease in investment is rationalised by the expectation that staff will either bring their own devices or use their devices’ in-built audio. While this might be functional it risks quality and activates a myriad of negative audio experiences employees report daily, including background noise, interference and poor quality. All of which ultimately can impact bottom line.

This is largely because many companies are yet to fully realise and recognise the benefits that effective audio collaboration technology brings to day-to-day working life. It not only enhances performance, but also improves employee wellbeing, which is quickly becoming a key differentiator for job seekers.

While it might be tempting to choose cheaper collaboration tools at a time where budgets are constrained, this can be a false economy – causing a reduction in efficiency and productivity, and potentially needing to be replaced quickly. Opting for solutions that are digitally advanced – using features such as proactive noise cancellation or artificial intelligence for enhanced voice pick up – help employees to feel more connected and heard, and this is particularly important in a time where the workforce is so dispersed.

What solutions has EPOS worked on?
Today’s workforce demands audio that enhances the working experience to ensure we deliver results. AI is increasingly become a part of this, from integrated voice assistants to adaptive audio.

AI technology has been the foundation of our newest flagship headset, the ADAPT 660. Our research and development team created EPOS AI, a tiny yet powerful network that we’ve established using deep learning. This being a subset of machine learning in which artificial neural networks, algorithms inspired by the human brain, learn from large amounts of data similar to how we learn from experience. The deep learning algorithm performs a task repeatedly, each time altering it a little to improve the outcome. Using this technique allows EPOS AI to distinguish human voices from other external sounds.

Now, whether you’re in a busy café, in a car, or just a loud open-plan office, EPOS AI and the adaptive noise reduction technology we’ve developed continuously optimises the pick-up of the user’s voice helping them to be heard clearly. Coupled with the ADAPT 660’s active noise cancelling technology, this dampens noise from surroundings into the users’ ears allowing them to focus on work without interference.

What have been the biggest challenges this year and which technologies have become most essential in addressing them?
When we think of collaboration tools, you might first think of Skype, Microsoft Teams or Zoom. But, underpinning all these functions is, of course, the audio experience. Businesses are going through a challenging time, with many companies seeing a negative impact as a result of the current health landscape, but if they want to meet the challenge and thrive, they need to recognise that working with good quality communications solutions is one of the critical investments you really need to make to stay competitive.

What’s also apparent is that smart investments in technology solutions and equipment carries with it a degree of future proofing both in terms of your investments but also their appeal to younger, more tech savvy employees. We know that younger users have a greater awareness of communication points. No two individuals are the same so why should we blanket collaboration tools? For instance, for hard-core performance, you might need bigger ear cups for noise cancelling; others will prefer lightweight headsets. Getting the right audio equipment for the individual user and task is key to getting better results from your employees.

How is augmented reality tech evolving in the audio industry?
New tech is giving us more control over how we experience reality. For instance, Augmented reality (AR) technologies allow users to alter what they see, hear and even feel. Hearables, for example, adjust ambient audio frequency levels and block out urban sounds. As interest in AR/VR (virtual reality) continues to grow so too will consumer curiosity. In 2021 and beyond the integration of smart features will be normalised in headphones. As an extension of this, the capabilities of AR hearables will grow in sophistication, with features like real-time translation. Live translation is becoming highly attractive to consumers. In 2017, 71% of global consumers were interested in the concept of using earphones that translate languages. Based on this interest, Foresight Factory estimates that by 2030, 20% of global consumers will have used this technology and overall interest will increase to 77% globally. These voice driven features all rely on high quality voice/speech pickup. Clear speech and reliable audio will be fundamental to trustworthy translations going forward.

How is voice tech accelerating over video tech?
Research from the Foresight Factory reveals that it’s here to stay with 60% of global Generation Z are using voice notes in messaging apps in 2020, and 75% of German Gen Zs. In today’s changing world, voice notes offer an antidote to the fear that emails, texts and instant messaging rob conversations of emotional nuance. Bringing emotional to the digital. With so much time spent looking at screens or watching videos, at work and at home, screen usage is increasingly leading to visual fatigue.

Individuals globally are looking for less screen time and audio offers a solution that is not only convenient but also personal. We are set to become increasingly accustomed to voice notes and will continue to associate voices with authenticity and intimacy. There are also obvious convenience elements to consider – voice notes can be created on the go and facilitate multitasking.

Can you tell me a bit more about virtual voice assistants?
The impetus behind the shift towards voice user interfaces is due to changed user demands. There is more awareness and a higher level of comfort to use voice to communicate demonstrated specifically by millennial consumers. We have seen a huge uptake in voice assistants use recently, having transitioned from quirky apps to the mainstream, moving from mobile devices and smart speakers to almost any device you can now think of. According to ComScore, next year 50% of all online searches will be performed with voice search. Voice has become synonymous with convenience as well as a more intimate and authentic consumer interaction. The Foresight Factory found that 36% of US consumers already own or have access to a smart home assistant.

Smart assistants will become a gatekeeper to entertainment. Entertainment brands must consider the role of smart assistants in the consumer path to engagement – particularly in the discovery phase. Beyond entertainment, 2021 will be marked by the entry of voice assistants in enterprise.

How are wearable and hearable devices impacting user health and wellbeing?
For some time, there has been talk of wearable and hearable devices with heart rate monitoring capabilities. At EPOS, we understand that beyond specific biometric tools like heart rate monitors we can focus on what sound tells us instead. In theory, audio has the potential to provide us with several insights about the user, including breathing, speech and movement patterns. While biometric sensors go some of the way, there are still untapped ways of making sense of what audio is already telling us.

In the future we might see an increase in EEG brain measurement of the auditory system where audio solutions are able to sense and measure individual voices within a conversation and focus on who is talking to enhance the listener experience. In responding to this, the audio device might be able to intervene to adjust levels of volume to enable one person to appear louder than the other.

Another component of future wellbeing, which we believe will become increasingly important in 2021 and beyond centers around the impact of sound on our emotional and physical wellbeing. If a person is exposed to interruptive sounds – “bad audio” – this can lead to a build-up of stress over time. Disruptive sounds can cause ‘micro-frustrations’, which, when experienced daily, can contribute to a bigger and more concerning impact on our overall wellbeing. Our EPOS research shows that 95% of today’s workforce admits that their concentration and efficiency at work has suffered due to audio setbacks, resulting in an emotional impact with 35% reporting feelings of annoyance due to bad audio. As we continue to work from home, there’ll be an increased awareness of the impact disruptive audio can have on our emotional wellbeing and force businesses to earmark spend on high quality audio solutions for their employees.

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