I spent a week with my ears in the future: audio-processing the real world is a strange experience.
My work colleague in the elevator sees what's in my ears, barely.
More discreet than AirPods, he says. Black, plug-like, they nestle in and keep a low profile. But he notices them.
Wearing them, I notice them too.
Putting regular earphones in your ears may not be enough. Soon, maybe, we might get "always-in" earbuds. Something like the Here One, which I wore over the last week, paired to an iPhone. The new $300 wireless headphones from Doppler Labs doesn't just want to be a pair of earphones; it wants to augment your hearing and become an everyday audio-filtering tool.
The Here Ones are like AirPods: independent left and right Bluetooth buds, with a charging case to carry them. But they're also different. AirPods just deliver music and act as a phone headset. Here One also has passthrough -- so you can hear the outside world without popping them out of your ears -- and a variety of active audio filters. Walking through the city? Try the City filter to tune out bass and keep a bit of treble cues in case of sirens. On an airplane? Airplane mode tunes almost everything out except voices, which feel like they're bubbling through an invisible audio shield.
Of course, Here One isn't the first set of in-ear headphones that allow for active noise cancellation, or even the ability to regulate how much -- or how little -- you want to hear from the outside world: The Bose QuietControl 30 is similarly equipped, for the same price. But the Bose's more traditional neckband design is considerably larger and heavier than the standalone buds of the Here One, and it lacks the dedicated filters on the accompanying smartphone app.
The filters are where it all gets more interesting. Here One mostly just transforms outside noises, via varieties of noise cancellation and occasionally augmentation. I can attempt to tune up front-facing listening, which is supposed to make me better at hearing things around me. I get a vaguely amplified sense of conversation in the next set of open-office desks or the train car seats in front of me. A mode to enhance conversations behind me amplifies the world behind my head a bit. I can hear people. But I take out the earbuds, and it's hard to tell how immediate the difference was.
Here One also didn't give the sort of superhuman hearing I was expecting. I couldn't hear across a room, exactly, and I found the different focus zones in certain filters to not filter as much as I wanted.
Here Ones do transform what I hear, by varying degrees. But with so many filters to choose from, I feel like a novice trying to tune my TV to the perfect picture setting, or select the ideal photo filter. Lots of solutions work well for me. I'm flexible. I learn to adjust.
I'd like Here One buds to adjust better, too. What if these earbuds could really analyze every environment I was in and tune themselves accordingly? Here One's CEO and co-founder, Noah Kraft, told me that's on the table for future updates, but right now the settings are frustratingly manual.
But what if those filters started doing more? What if the filters eventually started transforming audio reality?
I'd also be curious about having smart earbuds be a delivery system for an augmented audio future. Maybe I'd hear updates about store hours or be able to identify places by looking in their direction. Or a museum audio tour could be triggered by your proximity to an exhibit. Maybe I'd get a smartly-tuned audio assistant that sounded like it was perched over my shoulder, perfectly blended to sound like it was in my world versus being delivered via headphones.
Or, a universal translator. That's exactly what the Waverly Labs' Pilot is promising: the ability to hear a speaker of Spanish, French or Italian in English (or vice versa) in near real-time. Now, that's an earphone I'd keep in all the time -- at least while I was tooling around Europe.
Besides providing a better "killer app," these headphones need better battery life. My Here One review samples needed recharging every hour and a half or so, and kept reminding me to do so. (The rated battery life is two hours with active noise filtering, but you can pop them back into the charging carry case to be topped off three times.) It was that more frequent recharging that made them feel less convenient than Apple's AirPods right now.
And, there's something deeply weird about always-in earphones. More than anything, audio processing in my ears all day long gave me some sort of weird uncanny valley feeling. I felt present but absent. It was a bit like wearing Google Glass, or a VR headset all day. I needed a break. Once I took Here One buds out, no matter how effective the noise-filtering processing, I felt surprised by the crispness of the real world's actual, everyday sounds. It felt refreshing. I took a walk and listened to the cars and birds.
The bottom line is this: I feel more present in my world, and in conversations, without buds in my ears.
So when I talk to my colleague with earbuds in, yes, I can hear him, thanks to the pass-through audio. I can communicate. But I feel like I'm with him more when I take the buds out.
Is it weird that I feel that way? No. I think it's part of what any augmented tech will need to overcome: How to assist while not intruding. How to augment reality without invading it. And, right now, I don't think my ears are ready for the help yet. Not unless the benefits were significantly greater.
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