Noah Kraft is definitely thinking big.
“Just as Microsoft put a computer on every desk, and Apple put one in every pocket, we want to put a computer in every ear,” he says.
The “we” there is Doppler Labs, the four-year-old, New York-based company that Kraft co-founded. It’s been interested in your ears since its inception — first with a pair of noise-filtering earplugs called the Dubs, then with a noise-altering follow-up called the Here.
In simple terms, they advance the sound transforming properties of the Here, then throw music streaming and a bunch of other tricks on top. In Kraft’s eyes, they could help bring about a new wave of computing.
Will that happen? Who knows! After briefly testing a working prototype of the Here One late last month, though, I can at least see why he’s excited.
On the surface, the Here One are a fairly nondescript pair of wireless earphones. They're round, not that tiny but not too big, and not immediately uncomfortable. They don't look normal, but they don't look as odd as the AirPods. In the few minutes I wore them, they felt fine.
Then Kraft started talking. Even with the buds wound snugly into my ears, I could hear him, clearly and with no perceptible delay. I wouldn't call it natural -- there's still a bit of hiss and modulation -- but it was convincing, more so than the 'audio transparency' effect of the Bragi Dash, the Here One's closest competitor.
It is a strange sensation to have processors and microphones simulate your ear canals in real time. It is a stranger sensation to hear that sound warped and redirected with the touch of a smartphone. Yet that's what Kraft did through a few sliders and settings in the Here One's app. (Which needs to be open for any of this to work.)
With one slide, he cranked up a noise-cancelling effect to the point where only the highest pitches could come through. Again, the latency seemed low. With a few taps, he gave his voice reverb and echo, as if it was an electric guitar. In another menu, he turned on an 'eavesdropping' mode that softened all the noise coming from my front and sides, but amplified everything behind me.
I have no idea when anyone would need to use that last one, but it was neat.
The ability to stream audio is the Here One's big important upgrade -- nobody's going to pay $300 for a pair of earbuds that can't play music. Kraft put a few songs on, and again, it was fine. I won't pretend like I can make definitive judgments after such a short demo, but my first impression was that it sounded pleasant and punchy. There'll probably be higher-fidelity earphones for less, but music alone isn't really the point here.
What you can do with that music is more impressive. The Here One's sexiest feature is layered listening. As the music was playing, Kraft went to the app, turned down the stream, turned up the 'transparency,' and started chatting while the music was playing. He pitched it as having your own background music, and that's more or less exactly what it felt like. I could call a waiter over and order a drink without pausing or removing anything.
Like its predecessor, the Here One can filter and amplify specific frequencies. Think being at a concert -- if you'd like more bass, you could boost the low-end and drown out the higher-pitched crowd. The idea is to give you something like an EQ setting for the real world. Kraft says you'll be able to create and save your own filter settings for particular locations.
If you don't want to tinker with that yourself, Kraft says there'll be eight to ten different preset filters in the app at launch. Kraft turned on the 'Aeroplane' setting, for instance, and a big chunk of the low-end just cut right out. (So you could theoretically quiet the rumble of a jet engine.)
You can also let the device learn on its own. When you first use the Here One, Kraft says there's an onboarding procedure that lets its noise filters develop a 'baseline' specific to your ears. From there, Kraft says there'll be a 'Smart Suggest' feature that reads your location, the level of noise around you, the time of day, and your most used settings, then conjures up an appropriate filter.
So, if you head into the office in the morning with your phone's GPS on, the app might present a chatter-muting 'Office' filter to you as it's opened. Eventually, Kraft says, Doppler Labs wants to become more proactive in doing this, and make it so the buds automatically retune based on wherever (and whenever) you are.
The Here One are headphones, but Kraft doesn't like to call them that. He doesn't even think Doppler Labs will be in hardware for the long run. Instead, like Bragi, he considers the Here One an in-ear computer -- or 'hearable' -- and a platform for developers to build on. He wouldn't say which developers the company has lined up already, but did say it will announce initial partners soon.
In non-salesman speak, he's banking on hearables blowing up where smartwatches have fizzled, and trying to set Doppler Labs up as a leader in the Next Big Market after (or really, alongside) smartphones.
The Here One can talk to Siri or Google Assistant, make calls, and work with a few unspecified apps. The idea is to build those apps out, and make it so the computer in your ear can displace the computer in your pocket in more and more ways. (And if you pair it with an augmented reality headset, that might provide the visual aspect headphones inherently lack.)
With the audio layering, you can see how it might work. Kraft mentioned being at a ball game and playing a radio broadcast alongside the noise of the field, for instance, or calling an Uber at a cafe without stopping your music. And as Wired and The Verge have also noted, Kraft says the company is working on a tool that lets the earphone translate foreign languages in real time. Yes, like the universal translator from Star Trek. (Bragi is doing this, too.)
For Kraft's rapid, excitable pitches to hold up, however, people need to take to these things. And for as eye-opening as my demo was, there are plenty of reasons to doubt that will happen -- at least not right away.
The simplest and most significant issues are technical. Like all wireless headphones, the Here One use Bluetooth. And Bluetooth, as it is now, is old and inefficient. It wasn't built for devices like this. This is why every fully wireless headphone on the market regularly suffers from choppy connections and short battery life. The Bluetooth SIG plans to release an update that should advance all of this by the end of next year, but that's a ways off.
For now, I'll note that my demo was stationary, in a Manhattan hotel restaurant, with the phone two feet in front of me. It remains to be seen how well Here One will perform on the move. Doppler Labs has already said the device will get 3-5 hours of battery life on average, which is alright for this form factor, but still far from ideal.
Then there's privacy. A device like the Here One could dig up a mountain of personal data. Kraft says it won't be any different than the relationship you'd have with a smartphone today, but developers need to monetise apps, and it's not hard to imagine a future where personalised ads are routinely shot in your ears.
There are also perception problems. Headphones are isolating. Though the Here One's transparency tricks offer a way out, a world where people are always one swipe away from muting anything and everything around them, where their computers are in them rather than their hands, suggests otherwise.
Go read that sentence about the waiter and ordering a drink again. Is that a feature? Is 'Her' a good model to follow?
Kraft isn't oblivious to this. He says he doesn't envision the Here One as an 'all-day' device as it is now, and that he realises this is a concept most people will need to be eased into. But he believes it's a good thing for society.
Paced correctly, he might be right. Or not. Either way, the Here One seem wild. And the focus on your ears looks likely to keep growing.
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