Bose's glasses, fitted with speakers and mics, let you hear details about landmarks around you or learn a foreign language.
I've never been on this street before, and I'm not really sure where I'm going. I reflexively reach for my phone to see where I am. But then I remember I don't need it.
That's because I'm wearing Bose's new augmented reality (AR) sunglasses.
The prototype device, made from a 3D printer and packed with smarts and high-quality audio, made its debut at SXSW in Austin, Texas. Bose, the company best known for its headphones and speakers, built the sunglasses to show what's possible with its newly unveiled Bose AR Platform.
The augmented reality part of the glasses isn't actually anything visual -- it's audio. Instead of looking at a screen in front of you that gives you information about what you're seeing, the Bose AR glasses speak information out loud to you using speakers built into the arms of the glasses. And you're the only one who can hear it. The company touts its new device, which won't actually be going on sale to consumers anytime soon, as "glasses to hear."
"Right now most of the news and excitement around AR seems to be on the visual side," Santiago Carvajal, Bose's director of consumer electronics research at strategy, tells me. "But we think there's a really interesting application in audio. Imagine if we could present a layer on top of someone's natural hearing ... and give context."
In addition to its sunglasses, Bose also outfitted its QuietControl 30 in-ear headphones with the same smarts. It wants to get developers thinking about ways audio can be used to augment the world around us. To that end, it launched a $50 million venture fund for startups making apps, services or other technologies for Bose's AR platform. In terms of supporting Bose AR, it's already signed up partners like Aaptiv, Strava, TripAdvisor and Yelp.
I got to take the new AR glasses out for a spin here in Austin, and it was an ear-opening experience.
As I walk down lively Rainey Street in the city's downtown, I double-tap on the right arm of the sunglasses and hear a voice telling me the food truck park to my right typically opens up later to appeal to the late-night crowd. Farther down the block, there's something called Unbarlievable. After tapping on the glasses, the voice informs me it's a circus-themed bar, which comes as no surprise, considering there's a giant stuffed giraffe outside.
The glasses aren't like Google Glass , Microsoft's Hololens or even Snap's Spectacles . In fact, there's really nothing to see at all. For all intents and purposes, they really look like regular sunglasses. It's what you hear that's key.
The headphones have speakers built into the arms of the glasses, essentially turning the glasses into headphones. When I have them on, I can hear crystal clear audio, as if I'm actually wearing headphones. I'm surprised that no one around me can hear the music , and when I take them off, I can't actually hear anything until the arms are once again secured behind my ears. (Unlike Apple's AirPods , which pause when you take them out of your ears, the sound keeps playing through the glasses once you remove them.)
At the same time, I can still hear birds chirping around me and can talk to the people walking with me.
Bose says the technology can be built into other kinds of headphones, helmets and other items.
Instead of having to speak responses to inquiries, you can simply nod your head for "yes" or shake it for "no." The glasses -- with the built-in accelerometer, gyroscope, GPS and other technology -- know exactly which way you're facing, allowing apps to give you details about that particular thing you're facing. If you're in Paris, for instance, it will know you're looking at the Eiffel Tower and can speak information out loud to you.
"Can we get people to look away from their screens?" Carvajal asks.
After trying out the glasses, I pick up Bose's modified headphones.
One demo helps me brush up on my French skills. As I stand in front of a photo of a train station, the voice tells me the French word for train station and teaches me how to say, "Here's my passport." The idea is that you could be walking around in the world, and the technology would use GPS to recognize what's around you. Instead of having to move to Paris to learn French, you could immerse yourself in the language right from your own city.
Another demo focuses on audio selection. When I turn my head to the left, I hear a country twang in my ear. Staring straight ahead gives me Indie and moving my head to the right brings up even more genres. When I hear the station I want -- Indie -- I nod my head to launch songs from that genre. When I walk to my "office," the headphones turn on noise cancellation and start playing some soothing music. When I get to the "gym," the noise cancellation turns off and upbeat music starts blasting to my ears.
Bose's technology is still in its early days. Its next steps are getting developers excited about the platform and building apps for it. It hopes to have prototype devices for developers to use in the middle of the year. Consumers won't be getting actual devices this year, Carvajal says.
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