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Can Sony's Ear Assistant Save Us From Our Phones?

BARCELONA — Sony thinks you're spending too much time staring at your phone, handling tasks like sending messages or fiddling with your phone's camera. So it wants to build a line of accessories that take care a lot of that work for you, so that your eyes can occasionally drift upward from that smartphone screen.

That's where Sony's line of Xperia smart products come in. While mostly concepts at this point, the devices aim to provide you with contextual information you'd normally access from your phone. "We may not realize how much we are looking at our screens and missing the beautiful world around us," Hiroki Totoki, the president and CEO of Sony Mobile, told attendees at Mobile World Congress.

The first device in this new line of smart products, the Xperia Ear makes its debut this summer along with the Xperia X line of smartphones. The Ear is Bluetooth earpiece that allows hands-free interaction with your smartphone.

You can listen to messages through Xperia Ear, as well as dictate messages you want to send. (The Ear works with seven different messaging apps, a Sony rep told me.) Xperia Ear can also give you directions, list upcoming appointments, alert you about the weather look up information on Wikipedia and give you a rundown of the latest headlines.

You access these different features with voice commands like "Reply to Chris." The earpiece also features a button on its side for toggling between functions with a press.

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The Xperia Ear incorporates sensors as well. A proximity sensor in the earpiece can sense when you're putting the device into your ear. Do that when a call's coming in, and the device is smart enough to know you want to route the call through the earpiece. Other times, putting on the Xperia Ear will prompt the device to tell you about messages you might have missed.

Sony hasn't set a price on the Xperia Ear yet, though the earpiece does come in a range of colors — granite black, white, rose lime and rose gold — that match the look of the upcoming Xperia X smartphones.

Other devices in the Xperia line of smart products are still at the concept stage, but they follow the Xperia Ear's lead in freeing your hands and eyes from interacting with your phone. The Xperia Eye, for example, is a camera you can clip on your shirt. The idea is that instead of viewing events like a child's birthday or holiday get-together through the view finder of your phone's camera, you can live in the moment, while the camera attachment you're wearing handles the task of capturing photos.

The Xperia Eye concept features a 360-degree spherical lens. Sony says it will use both voice and facial detection to take photos.

Xperia Projector seems to serve multiple purposes based on a brief demo video prepared by Sony. The device can beam weather information, upcoming appointments and missed calls onto a wall so you can gather all that data without having to consult a smartphone screen. In an intriguing feature, that data may be interactive--Sony's demo video showed a woman tapping on the missed call projection to return the call. Xperia Projector also beams photographs that you'll be able to dismiss and rotate with swipes and other gestures.

Sony touts Xperia Agent as a personalized assistant that can control your home appliances and provide you with other useful information like the weather and appointments. That makes Xperia Agent sound an awful lot like Amazon's Alexa, if Amazon's personal assistant-driven speaker looked more like a dalek with its arms snapped off. Sony says Xperia Agent will have a built-in camera and projector so that, like Xperia Projector, it can beam information onto a nearby wall.

There's no word on how soon these Xperia smart products will follow after the Xperia Ear — or if they'll even ship at all. Sony's Totoki said the rest will come in "the near future."

Even if these exact products don't pan out — and count me in the skeptical camp about the value of a robotic personalized assistant — the fact that Sony's putting resources into this area suggests that new and improved features won't be the only things phone makers are looking to add. They're also trying to come up with ways to let us use the mobile features we already have more efficiently.