By Lisa Johnston
New products on display at the American International Toy Fair, held in N
Drawn closer by critical ties to auto safety, mobile hands-free headsets for cellular phones are paving strong inroads into America's driving habits.
Although grass roots efforts to ban hand-held phones while driving have wavered a bit in the face of some legislative ambivalence and public apathy, a growing number of makers — in bowing to an overall outcry for safer driving — are increasing hands-free product selection in the marketplace.
Along with safety, vendors also are championing wearing comfort, increased communication quality and new ease-of-use features.
Not the least, many companies are rolling out headsets that address the emissions control issue as a way of dealing with health questions that have grabbed a share of headlines in the last few years.
Chris Marshall, EarHugger director of marketing, sums up her take on current hands-free publicity. "Numerous newspaper and magazine articles are still being written every month concerning cellphones and driving safety — despite a decided downturn in legislative interest in this issue across the country. Many local ordinances requiring the use of hands-free devices have been overturned in the courts. Nevertheless, accidents involving cellphones still make good copy.
"In addition, the release of findings from a recent European study on cellphone radiation has again spurred public concern about cellphone use and brain tumors," Marshall said. "The overall result of this kind of pressure is that most people see headset use as a safety issue. But headsets cannot help ensure the wearer's safety if the set isn't being worn! That makes comfort a safety issue."
In addressing comfort, the Lindon, Utah-based EarHugger is offering an adjustable headset that it said can literally be worn comfortably for hours at a time. Called the Fully Adjustable, Over-The-Ear Cellular Headset, the unit features an advanced technology that allows a user to talk and listen through the ear.
The headset's post and swivel design adjusts six ways to comfortably fit all ears. The speaker and microphone rotate easily for use on either ear. A mute button or answer hang-up button, plus a volume control/answer hang-up/mute button module comes with a sturdy clothing clip attached. EarHugger said there is no more fumbling to adjust the volume or use the answer/hang-up button. A second clothing clip, also located on the cord, assures maximum comfort and adjustability, said the company. Suggested retail is $19.99.
Strong growth in sales of hands-free kits in 2002 can be expected for a number of reasons, according to Chris Maddox, business unit manager at Belkin Components. "First, consumers are more aware of hands-free kits due to states adopting legislation that requires their use. That, with increased knowledge of possible radiation emissions from mobile phones, makes hands-free kits a No. 1 solution for safety conscious consumers.
"On top of that," said Maddox, "with lower prices and smaller, more comfortable kits, users will have added access to a variety of solutions, one that is just right for them. All in all, there are some compelling reasons for continued growth in 2002."
Belkin's Airflow Hands-Free Kit uses what the company calls a unique airflow conductor system to send signals, dramatically reducing emissions exposure to a user's head and ear from a mobile phone. This compares with conventional hands-free systems that use metal wires to deliver audio signals to the ear speaker.
The Airflow F8V920-ARF, at a suggested $19.99 retail, features lightweight components and a soft, rotating ear piece for maximum comfort and flexibility. It also allows for easy call-handling for Samsung phones with a One Touch answer/end button located on the ClearTalkT control unit, which houses the microphone, said the Compton, Calif.-based Belkin.
The "one-touch" button frees users to pick up, terminate and activate voice dialing on select phones. Also, the SoftHoldT system ear piece and support is incorporated in the unit, eliminating Ear Duress Syndrome, said the company.
"The headset business will continue to grow in 2002, along with awareness of hands-free," said Tony Vassos, product manager at Itasca, Ill.-based Fellowes. "Consumers are looking for higher quality products that are comfortable and offer good sound quality," he said.
"With Bluetooth starting to gain momentum, we will see more Bluetooth phones and headsets starting to ship in the fourth quarter."
Fellowes is concentrating its efforts on its Body Glove Earglove Mini, at a suggested $19.99 retail, that offers fun, fit, flair and fashion. Designed for users looking for a stylish, discreet ear set — as compared with bulky, hair-snagging headset wires — the Earglove Mini offers an all-in-one speaker and microphone that slips gently into the ear.
It has an integrated one-touch button that allows the user to answer, end and mute calls with the tip of a finger. The Mini comes with three interchangeable colors — silver, blue and burnt orange. It fits several cellphone models, including the 2.5mm Motorola/Samsung/Nextel i80/i90/i50/i85, Nokia 8200/8800/3300 series and Nokia 5100/6100 series.
Because many consumers consider their cellphones to be a fashion accessory, Jensen has designed its new hands-free lines accordingly, said Brian Ledford, cellular product manager for this Recoton company.
"As cellphones incorporate ever-advancing technology for expanded features and higher performance, consumer demand is prompting the cellular accessories industry to raise the quality and performance standards of hands-free headsets. That, combined with the current move in many regions to ban manual cellphone use while driving, has definitely put hands-free sets in the forefront of consumer awareness."
Jensen has designed its JCA710 and seven other SKUs in its new hands-free line to provide the highest possible level of comfort, convenience and performance. It approached creation of the line through the premise that consumers are more likely to use a hands-free headset consistently if the ear buds fit snugly throughout the duration of wear and the sound quality is high.
The Lake Mary, Fla.-based company's EarGo Softbud line, which includes the JCA710, features ear buds that insert directly into the ear canal and gently conform to its shape to create a sealed environment that improves both comfort and sound performance. The ear buds are ultra-lightweight, but stay in place no matter how the user moves, said Jensen.
A custom-designed neodymium speaker is engineered for optimum efficiency in the midrange frequency, at which the human voice carries. All SoftBud SKUs have a high-sensitivity microphone that transmits excellent voice quality while minimizing background noise, said Jensen.
In addition to the JCA710, which is universally compatible with all cellphones and has a storage case that features sleek, curving lines and a hip combination of metallic tones and translucent colors, SoftBuds include the JCA711, which is compatible with the Nokia 5100/6100/ 7100 series. The JCA712 is compatible with the Nokia 3000/8000 series, and the JCA713 is compatible with Samsung phones. All have a suggested $29.99 retail.
The EarGo Twist-n-Plug ear bud, which has an S-shaped stem that follows the contours of the ear for secure positioning, features a full-range ferrite speaker. The JCA700 offers universal compatibility, while the JCA701 is compatible with the Nokia 5100/6100/7100 series. The JCA702 is compatible with the Nokia 3000/8000 series, and the JCA703 is compatible with Samsung phones. Suggested retails are $19.99 for all Twist-n-Plug products.
GE/Sanyo has launched a new upscale line of wireless headsets designed for comfortable fit and superior quality. Both the Platinum Power Headset and Earbud offer a convenient on/off/mute switch located on the ear piece where it is easy to find while driving. Units also offer a high definition noise filtered ear speaker and a noise suppression microphone. The Headset has a custom 4-way adjustable ball joint boom, while the Earbud has a telescoping microphone boom.
"The retail headset industry is expected to grow to 100 million units in 2002," said Fred Creamer, GE/Sanyo sales manager. "The headset volume — that's out of the box, not OEM business — is for use with cellular and cordless phones.
"GE/Sanyo has redesigned its standard line of EarBuds and Headsets to make them more comfortable to wear, with a more ergonomic design that will enhance their wearability and their performance. We incorporate features that respond to 'what the consumer wants,'" said Creamer.
Models in the Platinum Power headset series, from the San Diego-based company, will fit all popular phones and will be in stores by late spring. These will range in suggested retail from $24.95 to $69.99.
For Santa Cruz, Calif.-based Plantronics, which is offering what it calls the next-generation ear bud headset for cellular phones, the key to product sales is an unobtrusive ear bud design that is discreet without compromising sound quality.
Called the M205, the hands-free headset includes a scratch-resistant, chrome-like finish with dark blue accents. It offers microphone technology that provides natural voice delivery, enhancing sound quality, with acoustic sound protection to help safeguard the user's hearing. Special ergonomic consideration was made, separating the microphone from the control pod, to allow for convenient access and to minimize interference with the microphone.
"Sound quality is the key," said Joyce Shimizu, president of the Plantronics Mobile Communications division. "As emerging voice applications gain popularity, sound quality will be the most important feature a headset must have.
"Through our research we found most first-time headset users are attracted to an ear bud-style product due to discreet styling, but are often not impressed with how it looks or sounds," said Shimizu. "The M205 transmits natural-sounding speech in a sleek, attractive design. We feel this is an excellent hands-free solution for drivers concerned with safety."
The M205 series includes three ear bud offerings. The M205 with both mute and volume control is available for most cellular/PCS phones with a standard 2mm jack at a $39.95 suggested retail. The M206-N1 variant is designed for Nokia 3000 and 8000 series phones, while the M206-N2 version is designed for Nokia 5100, 6100 and 7100 series phones. Both variants provide an answer/end button and volume control for a suggested $42.95 retail.
Combining a rearview mirror, a hands-free kit and a digital recorder — all in one easy-to-use item — is how Tecnozone has introduced a "unique" way of speaking hands free in the car.
Called the Reflector, the universal hands-free system is attached right to the existing mirror. The Reflector offers a send button to answer a phone call, a mute button for a three-way call and a rec button to allow the recording of messages while driving, or a conversation that the user might be having on a cellphone. The Reflector has a DSP chip that will allow over one minute of "digital talk time."
Included with the New York-based Tecnozone's Reflector, at a suggested $99.95, among others, is 64-second recording ability, high-definition directional microphone and speaker, universal phone connector and an 8-hour rechargeable battery.
The full duplex directional microphone that users clip directly to their auto visors is built into the Reflector. Since the Reflector is universal, it can work with any phone. Just plug and the user is ready to go. With high-end rechargeable batteries, users can work the Reflector all day with just one charge. Unwired Technology utilizes an auto seat headrest design to position its UC-500. This location places the speaker closer to the user and the microphone close enough to the mouth, without being a potentially dangerous visual distraction.
In helping to solve problems associated with standard plug and play devices that attach into a car's cigarette lighter, the UC-500 eliminates dashboard clutter, said the company. It fits most cars because the majority of car seats have adjustable headrests on posts. A strap attachment is an available option for straight seatback designs. Also, as an intrinsic part of its design, the UC-500 provides for adequate separation of speaker and mike to eliminate echo and feedback problems.
Unwired's UC-500 Handsfree Speakerphone Accessory, which simply plugs into a cellphone headset jack, allows users to speak and listen at the same time, and offers a special patented noise suppression circuit which isolates and boosts the user's voice, while suppressing and virtually eliminating noise, even at highway speeds. The unit, at a suggested $100 retail, has a standard 2.5mm plug to make it compatible with most cellphones and adapters for Nokia 5100/6100/7000 and 3000/8000 series phones.
Farmingdale, N.Y.-based Unwired sees a growing demand for its UC-500, according to Tony Brillantino, vice president/ sales. "New York has passed a law and legislation is pending in about 37 states. Other states are expected to follow in time." At the same time, there is "increased public awareness, even without legislation. Many people are feeling a moral obligation to their own families, fellow travelers and pedestrians to use a hands-free device," Brillantino said.
Concerns about radiation also are driving the business, said Brillantino. Due to health concerns, many people have adopted the use of ear buds and hands-free devices. Now, there also are claims about ear bud/mike accessories actually channeling radiation through cords into an ear, he said, leading some companies to market ear bud headsets with special radiation-free designs. "We feel this concern will further drive people to seek out a good speakerphone solution, such as Unwired's Handsfree Speakerphone Accessory, and avoid using an ear bud."
Other trends driving the hands-free business is future growth of new cellphone and service technologies, including many features accessible through voice commands that will rely on good quality voice input, said Brillantino. He also feels there will be growth in the telematics services available in autos. These services, a blend of telephony and computerization, will require good and accurate voice quality from the user, leading to increased quality headset sales.
Another auto off-the-ear headset is being offered by International Components (ICC), which allows users to hold a normal conversation, while leaving both hands free to grip the wheel. Called the PowerPlus Digital Speaker Phone Adapter, it enables popular cellphones to be used as a hands-free speakerphone. There is no installation required and the product is a convenient alternative to a car-installed speakerphone unit, said Chicago-based ICC.
"Much of the talk about headsets is being driven by concerns over talking and driving," said Stephen McClure, ICC president. "But while headsets are good for pedestrian talk sessions, they don't really solve the distraction 'inside your head' like a hand-held unit.
"That's why we see the digital speakerphone segment being a growth area as well, because they simulate a natural conversation with a passenger in the vehicle," McClure said. He expects speakerphones, in general, to account for 15 percent to 20 percent of the entire hands-free market over the next three years.
ICC, which sells its PowerPlus through wireless carriers as well as a number of consumer electronics retailers, said its product incorporates a miniature omni-directional digital microphone. This design places the mike close to the driver when the unit is mounted on the dash. The mike is designed to boost normal voice frequencies, while tuning out background noise, to create a clearer conversation. A separate speaker section has an independent volume control and includes a swivel mount for ideal driver positioning.
PowerPlus is available for such phones as Nokia, Motorola, Samsung, Ericsson, LG, Audiovox and Sanyo. Suggested retail is $49.99 for the car kit. Stories about the dangers of using cellphones while driving and related laws are increasing awareness among consumers. This is "turning the hands-free headset business into a business that is interesting to more traditional consumer electronics retailers and mass merchandisers," said Gordon Tetreault, national sales/market manager for accessories products at Maxell.
Tetreault added that growing consumer interest in the category is leading to more sales of branded product, such as Maxell. To this end, the Fair Lawn, N.J.-based company is offering its HF-425 hands-free headset, which features a "unique" silicone ear tip that conforms to the shape of the user's ear canal for superior wearing comfort and security.
For custom comfort and wearability, the HF-425, at a suggested $14.99 retail, comes with various sizes of ear tips to accommodate a wide variety of users. Also designed for right- or left-side use, the Maxell HF-425 has an in-line microphone with mute button and a lapel clip on a coil cord. It comes with a Nokia 5100/6100/7100 series adapter.
In other contributions to a growing product list from headset makers, jWin Electronics is offering a new line of digital high-quality hands-free headsets that includes the JHF 98, which offers in-line volume control with one-touch talk/dial and an adjustable ear piece. The headset is the first in JWin's new line, designed for the needs of an ever-expanding market, according to the Woodside, N.Y.-based company.
The JHF 98 will be available in July at a suggested $19.95 retail. It is complementary with both Nokia and Samsung cellphones.
Eight new hands-free ear pieces have been added by Gentec International to its Planet Wireless collection of mobile phone accessories. These include full-featured premium ear pieces and youth-oriented, lifestyle ear pieces.
The premium category from the Markham, Ontario-based Gentec includes two ear bud and two boom-style ear pieces. All four feature a high sensitivity microphone, crisp sound quality and a garment clip to keep the ear piece in place.
The HFK111, at a suggested $19.95 retail, offers a lightweight ear bud and in-line microphone. The HFK115 ear bud, at $29.95, adds an in-line send/end button and volume control. The HFK116 features a noise canceling boom and one-touch send/end button for $29.95 suggested retail. The HFK120 offers a noise canceling boom mike, in-line one-touch send/end button and volume control for $39.95. Both boom ear pieces have a reversible ear hook for use on either ear.
The lifestyle category features four ear piece designs, all at $14.95 suggested retail, that combine fashion and function. HFK110 includes three interchangeable ear piece covers, plus a flexible boom mike and spring-loaded ear hook. The ultra-lightweight HFK130 offers maximum comfort and stylish boom mike. The HFK131 ear bud design incorporates the integrated ear hook, plus an in-line mike with one-touch send/end button. The HFK133 features an integrated ear bud and boom mike with a one-touch send/end button and volume control. All three boom types can be worn in either ear.
Cutting-edge wireless technology, in the form of Bluetooth, is being jump-started in the mobile headset category with the introduction of the Jabra FreeSpeak. The hands-free headset works with the latest Bluetooth phones, and with many other mobile phones through a Bluetooth adapter.
Being promoted as a wireless headset that offers comfort, clarity and affordability, Jabra said the FreeSpeak weighs less than 1 ounce, with an ear piece and microphone boom that conform behind the ear to guarantee users a comfortable, secure fit. The ear piece also features the San Diego-based Jabra's soft, ergonomic gel tip, which channels sound into the ear canal.
The FreeSpeak is fully compliant with version 1.1 of the Bluetooth specifications, offering a range up to 30 feet to a phone. The unit will be available this September, at a suggested $99 retail for headset and charger, and $179 for headset and Bluetooth adapter/charger.
The headset is designed for ease of access to volume controls and audible status indicators. It also includes an answer/end button that supports voice activation, so users can make and take calls without touching the handset.
Jabra plans to offer two versions of FreeSpeak. The first is a headset for use with Bluetooth phones, which includes an integrated holder/charger with a built-in clip for wearing on a belt or purse. The second offering is the headset and adapter pair for use with non-Bluetooth phones. In this case, the clip-on multifunction holder/charger is also the Bluetooth adapter.
For home office/small office use, Fremont, Calif.-based Logitech has "cut the cord" with its Cordless Telephone and PC Headset System, which simplifies communication by enabling hands-free telephone calling or Internet voice chat with automatic switching between the phone and the PC. It includes a cordless headset and POTS adapter, 10 channel auto scan 900MHz transmission and a boom microphone that employs noise canceling and amplification technology that filters out background noise for precise audio input.
Because it involves only one headset that automatically switches based on the user's communications platform, the Cordless Telephone and PC Headset System eliminates desktop clutter and fumbling between devices. The unit, which has a 6-hour battery life and up to 100 feet of cordless freedom, retails for a suggested $79.95. Also from Logitech is the cordless Freedom headset for hands-free PC communication, which is said to be ideal for Internet voice call and voice chat applications. The unit offers up to six hours of continuous use and includes over 100 feet of cordless freedom. With 900 MHz technology and a rechargeable remote unit that features mute and volume control, the Logitech headset is said to be easy to use.
This TWICE webinar, hosted by senior editor Alan Wolf, will take a look at what may be the hottest CE products at retail that will be sold during the all-important fourth quarter. Top technologies, market strategies and industry trends will be discussed with industry analysts and executives.