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Wearable Tech

My first listen to Here One filtered the real world and pumped in music

Augmented audio: a marketing idea or a possible reality? Here One's earbuds promise a future of selective audio filtering -- and maybe augmented audio reality.

A set of tiny, pop-in earbuds that can play audio and magically tune out the rest of the world...or let other audio feeds in. That's what Here One is promising. It's a vision that combines the 2013 movie "Her" with next-level noise cancelling technology. I've tried a pair, briefly. And I'm still trying to figure out what I was listening to.

In a busy restaurant on a rainy day in Manhattan, Doppler Labs CEO and founder Noah Kraft handed me a pair of little buds to put in my ears.

I could still hear him, but the room's audio had changed. His voice sounded clearer. Everything else had turned...softer? Less noisy?

Kraft said he had turned the airplane noise filter on, which removed a layer of noise while still allowing normal conversation to pass through.

Then, as Kraft spoke to me, I heard music playing via his phone over Bluetooth, while I still heard his voice. Then his voice faded out, and all I heard was music. And then the music faded and his voice returned.

Doppler Labs started making active noise-filtering earpieces last year, but they didn't play music. Instead, they just filtered out ambient noise to get you as close to silence as possible. The Here One, coming at the end of the year for $300, combines that noise-filtering tech with the ability to listen to music you expect in a headphone. It's similar to Apple's AirPods or efforts from Samsung or Bragi, but with the active noise-cancellation function those buds don't offer.

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Here One's charge case offers two more charge-ups. (I couldn't take photos of my demo units.)

Doppler Labs

But that doesn't explain what Doppler Labs really wants to do, which is make an "ear computer." What that means when it comes to Here One is a set of six positional microphones that can hear the environment and then actively filter noise on the fly. It also means, down the road, that the Here One could isolate sounds and transform them: perhaps help translate languages, or trigger audio based on where you're looking and listening in a room.

In my all-too-brief demo in a hotel restaurant, I realized that yes, the Here One does filter noise well from what I could tell. And it even amplifies based on direction. I could listen to what was in front of me -- or behind me; suddenly I could make out another table's conversation.

Music sounded fine, but I'm not a headphone reviewer. The Here One's battery life may last anywhere from two hours to five, depending on whether both active noise filtering and music streaming are happening at the same time. The included charge case gives two extra top-offs.

Where Here One could really shine, though, is in a future world of augmented and virtual reality. The One could possibly help process 3D spatial audio cues and deliver content based on the environment. Kraft admitted that he's been talking with at least one mixed-reality company.

But in the here and now, all I got to do was listen to a smarter audio filter layered in with music-playing wireless earphones. Will Here One do more than that? And, will people really want more than basic active noise cancelling in a set of earphones -- and be willing to pay for it? Here One needs a killer app. In San Francisco, some demos of Here One featured live translation from English to Spanish, assisted by a paired PC connected software. If Here One were a magic translating earbud, that would be amazing. Here One will support voice-based services like Siri and Google Assistant when it's released, but that function wasn't available to demo during my briefing.

Would I want a pair of magic earbuds that could locate things in my world and position audio properly to go with a pair of future smartglasses? Yes, I would. As for whether I'd want a pair of smarter audio-filtering Bluetooth earphones, well, that depends on how good they are when they're available. But they sounded pretty good to me.