During a press trip to Sony HQ, I was given a demo unit for the upcoming Xperia Ear which is set to be released in June this year. I played around with it for almost half an hour and here are my thoughts on the Xperia Ear. Keep in mind that the product is still under development- Sony said that the hardware is ready but there’s work left to perfect the software.
The Xperia Ear, for those who don't know, is a Bluetooth device that connects to your phones and allows you to engage with your online world through voice commands. Think of the Xperia Ear as a Bluetooth headset on steroids- although Sony prefers you not calling it a Bluetooth headset.
It’s a tiny device measuring 29.3 x 15.2 x 25.2mm and weighing just 6.8 grams, and comes packaged in a cigarette lighter sized charger. Both the charger and the Xperia Ear are available in the same four colors as the new Xperia X range. Besides charging the unit, the base can also store power in itself. The Xperia Ear has a four hour battery life while the charger holds an additional twelve. Although the charger is small and light, I don’t think you’ll want carry one more device around with you.
The Xperia Ear is a rather neat looking device that’s small and light, yet packs a good amount of technology into it. It connects to your phone via Bluetooth and turns on as soon as you remove it from the base. Sony has kept the design clean with no buttons on the headset except for one that can either be short or long pressed for different functions. There are two microphones on the unit, one of which acts for noise cancellation. Sony will be bundling a couple of different sizes of ear gels to accommodate different ears. The sample I tested did not hold well on my right ear but stuck nicely on the left.
A proximity sensor lets the headset know when it’s in your ear and it starts announcing messages right away that can be configured using an app. At first, I heard nothing after settling the unit in my ear, but then the Sony representative realized that the person that tested the unit before me had turned off all startup announcements and once they were enabled, I could hear the Xperia Ear loud and clear. You can set the Ear to announce the date/time, weather, unread text messages or missed calls among other things at startup.
I mentioned that you could either long press or short press the button on the Xperia Ear and the app allows you to configure which action is associated with either of those. By default, the short press turns on the listening mode where you can issue commands while the long press can be configured to specific actions such as messaging a particular person, playing/pausing music, or announcing the next event from your calendar. With a short press you can issue commands to the Xperia Ear which currently include the following
- Date and time
- Weather conditions in any city
- Call someone or find out if you have any missed calls and call back
- Text someone or read out your text messages
- Play Music
- Launch an app
- Show you the map and start navigation
- Search for something on Wikipedia
- Find your phone
- Read out the news
- Create a calendar appointment or read out upcoming appointments
- Set an alarm or a timer
I used many of these commands with the Xperia Ear and most of the time, it worked well. Things like weather in a city or replying a text message were understood clearly by the Xperia Ear but there were times where it misinterpreted what I had said. That is a challenge not just for Sony but also for other voice processing engines by Google, Apple and Amazon. Although Sony has tried to make Xperia Ear’s engine converse in a natural way, the truth is that every one talks differently.
There were a few that didn’t work on the Xperia Ear- for example, it couldn't tell me what some of the interesting places around Tokyo were- but it could tell me about a specific location in Tokyo, such as the Tokyo tower. The one thing I really liked is using nods for yes and no- so when you want to confirm something, you simply shake your head up/down for a yes and sideways for no. It’s very natural and works really well.
The Xperia Ear is a well designed product but it’s biggest challenge will be competing with the likes of Siri, Cortana and Google Now. I have looked at a Jabra headset in the past that works with all three services and can be voice activated. Jabra is simply taking your voice and passing it to the relevant provider that does all the work. Sony on the other hand is working on it’s own voice processing engine and I think it will be tough for Sony to compete on that end with Google, Apple and Amazon- no matter how well designed the product is. There's still a couple of months before the Experia Ear launches- let's see if Sony can surprise me.