New earbuds give you super-hearing

Ready for hearable computing? Startups are rewriting all the rules for what earbuds can do. You heard it here first, folks.

Jon Phillips

Listen to this: The world of earbuds is about to be transformed by startups whose products let you customize what you hear.

Instead of earbuds, which typically deliver music and voice sounds through a wire, and hearing aids, which boost certain frequencies (lost to the elderly who listened to loud music through earbuds in their misspent youths), the new hearables -- wearable devices that live in your ears -- enable the customization of environmental sound. You can cherry-pick which noises you want to hear better, and which you want silenced.

Here's what you'll hear.

Doppler Labs Here Active Listening System

Doppler Labs' Here Active Listening earbuds run the sound in your environment through digital processing, then play it back to you almost instantly. That gives you the ability to make changes to what you hear using the company's app. You can essentially customize real-time environmental sounds.

At a concert, you can tune out the crowd to focus on the music. In an airplane, you can tune out the crying baby and tune in the conversation you're having. (That's right: The app actually has a "Reduce Baby" button.)

You can equalize live music, add effects, turn up the bass or turn it down so you can hear your conversation.

The Here Active Listening System started as a Kickstarter project, and the earbuds will start shipping in December, for $199 per pair, according to Doppler Labs.

The Dash

The Dash, a biometric headphone system from Bragi, works as three kinds of devices in one. First, it's a set of Bluetooth earbuds for streaming music wirelessly from a smartphone. Second, the earbuds have 4GB of storage and can play music loaded into their memory chips for listening without a phone. Finally, the earbuds function as a "quantified self" fitness tracking system for measuring heart rate, oxygen saturation and energy spent, as well as running pace and distance.

You control The Dash with a tiny touchpad and use gestures made up of sliding motions and taps.

While listening to music, you can turn environmental noise on or off. (This is more advanced than noise-canceling headphones, which only reduce the volume of white noise.)

The Dash earbuds are expected to start shipping next month, at $299.


The Soundhawk "Smart Listening System" is designed to let you customize what you hear. It includes a wireless earpiece, a wireless microphone and a charging case that work in conjunction with a mobile app.

For starters, the Soundhawk system can wirelessly stream audio from your phone, and you can use that capability for phone calls, listening to music or other purposes. You can also stream from the TV.

The omnidirectional wireless microphone is designed to let you hear conversations or other sounds even if you're a good distance away from the source. Place the mic near the source, and it will wirelessly stream the sound to your earpiece, making it seem as though you're very close to the source.

The app lets you customize what you hear. It can dial down environmental sounds and turn up speaking voices, so you can easily follow conversations in a noisy place.

The Soundhawk system costs $349. You can buy it on the company's website or on Amazon.


The newish category of hearable devices is a subset of an even more exciting category called disappearable computing (wearable computing devices that vanish into your body in one way or another).

Smart contact lenses, such as the glucose monitoring contacts being developed by Life Sciences (a new company under the Alphabet umbrella which is the conglomerate formerly known as Google), are an example of disappearables.

Smart tattoos, implants, intelligent dental crowns and other such devices are all examples of disappearables. And we'll see these come online as technology allows.

We're seeing hearables first, though, because the technology has already arrived.

It's almost certain that hearable devices will gain mainstream acceptance. We already use earbuds, but the wires are inconvenient. The smartphone-using public will surely go wireless. With the inevitable drop in price and boost in power -- Moore's Law applied to cramming more electronics into wireless earbuds while the cost declines --  wireless earbuds will grow incredibly smart and capable.

The prices of future hearables will be so low, and the features so compelling, that everyone will want to use them.

These devices will give us super hearing like a comic-book mutant superhero.

The ability to customize which sounds we hear from our environment and which we tune out will become far more powerful. We'll be able to carry on clear conversations at loud concerts, or do the opposite -- tune out nearby conversations and hear only the music.

We'll be able to set a range for the sound we hear -- only sounds generated within 10 feet of us, with everything else blocked out, for example. Or, when we choose, we'll be able to block out all sound.

We'll be able to "Tivo" live sound during conversations or meetings. When somebody says something that we don't catch, a quick gesture will give us "instant replay" on what was said. And we'll be able to retroactively capture audio for posterity.

The combination of super clear audible conversations and instant replay means nobody will ever have to ask: "What did you say?"

Hearable devices will give us hands-free, instant access to our virtual assistants -- Siri, Google Now, Cortana, Alexa and others. And our interactions with the artificial intelligence assistants of the future will be enhanced by the biometric-reading capabilities our hearable devices, such as the ability to detect voice stress patterns. Siri and the gang will know our emotional state and respond appropriately.

This new generation of hearables will transform the phone call. One-on-one, in-person conversations will be converted to digital signals and processed just like phone calls are now.

The act of raising a smartphone to one's ear will become obsolete. We'll just tell our virtual assistant who to connect to, and we'll be instantly connected to the person or group we want. A conversation with a friend in a noisy restaurant or in another city will involve the exact same process: We'll simply connect to or isolate that person's voice no matter where they are and just talk. And we won't have to worry about interrupting others, because nearby strangers will be able to tune us out.

The first wave of hearable devices is just the beginning of something wonderful.

Within a few years, intelligent wireless in-ear computers will be able to process all the sound coming in, then customize it for us in real time. And they'll give us an invisible and direct connection to our A.I. assistants and an internet of information and communication like we've never experienced. They'll monitor our vitals and network with our other bodily and personal gadgets, our homes and the Internet of Things devices in our environment.

That's all in the future, though. For now, they can already let you tune out that crying baby.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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