Iyo Believes Its AI Earbuds Will Succeed Where Others Failed


A month after launching its first product, Humane’s co-founders have reportedly put their well-funded startup on the market. Even the firm’s biggest cheerleaders didn’t anticipate the Ai Pin to revolutionize the world so swiftly, but few of its detractors expected such a quick downturn.

Humane’s main competitor, the Rabbit R1, also faced its share of problems. Soon after its debut, critics harshly reviewed the generative AI-fueled handheld. The key criticism was that the “half-baked” device could have been better as an app rather than a $200 piece of hardware.

The anticipation for both devices underscores an interest in new form factors that leverage LLMs (large language models) in practical daily uses. Currently, however, it’s clear that no one has perfected the concept.

Iyo represents a third approach in the quest to create standalone generative AI devices. Unlike Humane, which introduced a completely new form factor with a lapel pin, Iyo is embedding its technology into an already popular category: the Bluetooth earbud.

When the Iyo One launches this winter, the company will benefit from several years of consumer education regarding the integration of assistants like Alexa and Siri into headphones. The leap to more sophisticated LLM-based models is much smaller compared to the Ai Pin, which requires a fundamental change in how we interact with devices.

Similar to Humane and Rabbit, Iyo’s inception predates the current AI hype. The company has its roots going back to 2019.

“I saw all these advancements in AI across three different research orgs inside Google, along with independent efforts from OpenAI and others,” founder and CEO Jason Rugolo told Truth Voices. “I realized the foundational models were proliferating and becoming commodities — a very controversial notion in 2019.”

While Humane generated interest from the founders’ Apple backgrounds, Iyo was incubated inside Google. It began inside Alphabet X, the “moonshot factory” behind projects like Glass and Project Loon, before spinning off in 2021. Unlike Waymo or Wing, however, Iyo is not a subsidiary. Alphabet was Iyo’s first investor, though the search giant does not hold a seat on the company’s board.

Yes, there was an Iyo TED Talk. Image Credits: TED
Image Credits: Iyo

Another significant advantage is that despite its name, the One won’t be Iyo’s first product. Interested buyers can currently visit the firm’s site to purchase another related audio device. The $1,650 Vad Pro is essentially a high-end in-ear studio reference monitor. Featuring a similar rounded form factor to the One and including head-tracking, Iyo’s first commercially available device is wired.

“If you’re working in a digital audio workstation like Logic Pro,” says Rugolo, “it pairs with software we wrote that applies our virtualization technology.” This is intended to help engineers create spatial audio mixes.

The Vad Pro highlights another essential aspect of the Iyo One: they are designed chiefly to be premium headphones. Unlike the Ai Pin and R1, which rely solely on AI functionalities for their value, the Iyo One can also serve as exceptional headphones.

The earbuds are noticeably larger than standard Bluetooth models, partly to accommodate a significantly larger battery. Rugolo mentions that the battery can last up to 16 hours when paired with a phone in Bluetooth mode. However, in cellular mode without a handset, this drops to around an hour and a half.

Cost is another consideration. While the Iyo One will be cheaper than the Vad Pro, it’s still expensive at $599 for the Wi-Fi model and $699 for the cellular version. The latter price point is similar to the Ai Pin and significantly more than the R1. This is quite steep for the average consumer to purchase just to experiment with. However, unlike the Ai Pin, the Iyo One does not require a monthly subscription.

The Vad Pro. Image Credits: Iyo

“That kind of model is really something driven by venture,” Rugolo said. “They push companies hard to lock in customers. I don’t like that approach. It’s not best for customers.” The cellular version, however, will require users to sign up for a plan with their carriers, which is standard practice.

As Nura’s eventual acquisition by Denon showed, the Bluetooth earbud market is tough for startups, no matter how innovative their technology. Companies face competition from major industry names like Apple, Samsung, and Google, and from cheaper alternatives often produced by Chinese manufacturers.

Rugolo believes the earbuds will provide value from the onset, unlike the Ai Pin and R1, which have struggled with the same.

“The key is to deliver immediate value right out of the box, focusing on the features you ship with,” the Iyo founder said. “We believe this is a platform, and there will be millions of ‘Audio-First Apps,’ these AU apps. But people don’t buy platforms. They buy products that do super useful stuff for them. So, just on sound isolation, comfort, and music quality alone, we think there’s a very large market for these devices.”

Brian Heater
Brian Heater
Hardware Editor. Brian has worked for a number of leading tech publications, including Engadget, PCMag, Laptop, and Tech Times, where he served as the Managing Editor. His writing has appeared in Spin, Wired, Playboy, Entertainment Weekly, The Onion, Boing Boing, Publishers Weekly, The Daily Beast and various other publications. He has also appeared as a regular NPR contributor.

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