Hands-on: Xperia Ear - the tiny device that puts Sony's new digital assistant in your ear

There’s no shortage of digital assistants these days, from Apple’s Siri to Microsoft’s Cortana and Google Now. Does the world need another tech giant to build its own? As far as Sony is concerned, the answer to that question is a resounding ‘yes’ – and it’s gone one step further by creating a new piece of hardware to make using its assistant as easy as possible.

Yesterday, along with its new upper-mid-range smartphones, Sony unveiled the Xperia Ear, a new Bluetooth earpiece - similar to the Moto Hint - that acts as a companion device for its up-and-coming assistant. The assistant itself has no name – yet; I spoke to Sony today, and they said that they’re still considering the possibility of naming the assistant. Indeed, I was told that many of the visitors to its stand at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona believe that a digital assistant deserves at least some nomenclature, and as far as that feedback goes, the company is listening.

The device is small, but it still sticks out from your ear noticeably rather than ‘invisibly’ sliding into the ear; if you’re expecting some ultra-tiny secret agent-style kit here, you’ll be disappointed. Even so, the Xperia Ear is extremely light and even on the pre-production unit that I got to try out today, the build quality seemed pretty solid.

It also seemed fairly comfortable, thanks to the soft silicone insert – but it’s worth bearing in mind that a few minutes of wear during a brief demo can’t compare to wearing it for hours at a time. We’ll have to wait and see how comfortable it still feels after having it in the ear throughout the day.

Sony says you can expect just over three days of standby time between charges – but to achieve that, the headset will have to be in minimal use during that period. Of course, making very little use of such a device rather defeats the object of wearing it, so you should expect considerably less than this in real-world usage. By comparison, Sony says the device will be good for around four hours of talk-time in a voice call. Of course, the Xperia Ear is more than just a Bluetooth headset for hands-free voice calling though.

If you do run out of battery on the go, the Xperia Ear will come with a case that contains a small battery into which you can simply slot the device, and ‘quickly’ charge it up (three times over, in fact). Sony isn’t ready to say exactly how long that will take, but the chap I spoke to pointed out that there would be very little point in the company building a device that takes a long time to charge on the go, when the whole purpose of using it is to provide the convenience of an ‘always-there’ assistant.

While its biggest tech rivals are working hard to develop a more ‘conversational’ style of interaction with their assistants, Sony is far less worried about that, and in fact, it encourages the use of far more direct commands – for example, rather than “Hey Cortana, what’s the weather like in Barcelona today?”, Sony says you’ll get the best results by simply stating “Weather in Barcelona”.

To begin interacting with the assistant, you simply tap a button on the side of the earpiece, listen for the audio prompt, and then utter your command. After a moment, the assistant will return with (hopefully) an appropriate response. Even amid the raucous hustle and bustle of the Sony stand at Mobile World Congress, this worked pretty well for me – I didn’t have to wait long before getting a quick summary of the day’s weather in a softly spoken (albeit obviously artificial) voice.

But the assistant has a broader range of talents than simply being a glorified meteorologist. You can ask for other information too, including Wikipedia entries. The assistant won’t read out the entire contents of a Wikipedia page for the subject matter that you specify; instead, you’ll get a top-level overview – just a top-level summary of the most crucial (or, to put it in more realistic terms, the most superficial) details.

The assistant can also help with directions – and it’s this area in which Sony believes that the Xperia Ear and its assistant make particularly good sense. With GPS enabled on your handset, you can tap the earpiece and ask for directions to a destination on foot or in a vehicle, and you’ll get turn-by-turn instructions as you go, through integration with Google Now and Maps. It’s not entirely clear how Sony’s solution is functionally superior than using any other Bluetooth or wired headset connected to your phone, and interacting directly with Google Now – but Sony is confident that its voice recognition and language processing are superior to those of Google.

I only had very limited time with the device – hardly enough to form a conclusive opinion on that side of things – but it seemed to work well, even in the noisy environment of MWC. Sony said that they’ve already got extensive voice recognition support in eight languages, including English, Spanish and French, among others – and also including some of the denser accents in use in each language… although it also acknowledged that the “most extreme” accents may not work quite so well just yet.

Indeed, that’s a point that’s worth dwelling on for a moment – Sony’s ambitions to build its own assistant are certainly intriguing, but this isn’t an endeavor for the faint-hearted. Developing a reliable digital assistant with – eventually, one assumes – global language support is a massive project, and even the giants of the industry with vast and highly developed machine learning resources have found that this kind of thing takes a great deal of time… and money. One has to wonder if Sony will have what it takes to stick with its efforts in the long-term – and whether or not that investment is truly worthwhile, when its Android devices already support Google Now.

Beyond being able to ask for help, the other side of Sony’s assistant is more proactive, and will certainly require some more significant testing to see how it fares in every day usage. The earpiece features multiple sensors, allowing it to know when you’ve put it into your ear. When you do, you’ll immediately get a ‘greeting’ – but this is more than just a simple 'hello'.

The greeting, which can be extensively customized, is an executive summary of what matters most to you. You can choose to hear your latest texts, news headlines, and even tweets, without having to ask aloud for any of that information, simply by putting the device in your ear. After that, you can get the Xperia Ear to read out your texts, emails, tweets, and even WhatsApp messages, as they come in throughout the day.

I’m still not quite sure what to make of the Xperia Ear. It’s a nice piece of kit, and in the briefest of glimpses at its performance, it seemed to handle things well. But is this a device that buyers will consider essential, or even occasionally useful? That’s debatable – and price will undoubtedly play a big part in whether or not buyers warm to the device.

As for Sony’s new assistant, that too raises some intriguing questions, and the most significant one is that of necessity – is another assistant, one that bucks the trend for natural language input in favor of basic, terse commands, really what the market wants? Only time will tell, but it’s going to be very interesting to see how this all plays out in the months ahead.

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