Your earbuds can probably play music, take phone calls, and summon a personal assistant like Siri or Google Now, but they’re not very smart.
Over the last several years, so much attention in the wearable market has focused on adorning our wrists with gadgets that the ear has largely been ignored. Yet it’s actually a great spot for tech adornment: so many of us are already wearing earbuds or headphones much of the time, it’s pretty close to our mouths so it’s a good place for taking in spoken commands, and it’s a convenient spot for simple touch commands, too.
Startup Doppler Labs is one of several companies that have figured this out. On Tuesday it launched its first mass-market product—a $300 pair of wireless earbuds that let you manipulate the world around you by filtering all kinds of sounds and helping you home in on the ones you want to enhance.
The ear gear, called Here One, is too pricey for the average consumer and still has plenty of kinks to work out—its battery life, for instance, is a depressing two to three hours, depending on how you’re using the earbuds. Still, its capabilities offer a fascinating look at where wearable technology is heading.
The earbuds look largely the same as an earlier Doppler product I reviewed last year but they can now do a lot more. You can still turn down the din in the restaurant you’re sitting in, either by manually adjusting the noise with a graphic equalizer or preset filters in the Here One app, but now there are three microphones within each earbud to help you do things like amplify just the voices behind you or in front of you. And you can also take phone calls, listen to music, and summon Siri on the iPhone or Google Now on select Android phones (the Android app currently works only with Samsung’s Galaxy S6 and S7). You can control many of these actions by tapping once or twice on either earbud.
When you start up the app the first time, it helps you build a personalized listening profile by asking you to let it know when you hear a tone playing in one ear while white noise is pumped into the other. A handful of filters let you focus on specific noises, like a “Noise Mask” filter, which pumps white noise around you to just generally block out sound.
In theory, the Here One touch controls are a great idea, but they were unreliable. Often, I’d find myself tapping my ears over and over to try to pause or play music, get Siri to do my bidding, or bring my audio back to the level of reality. Beyond being annoying, it was a little embarrassing when I was standing in front of another person, as they’d look at me quizzically as I repeatedly hit myself in the side of the head.
I was also unimpressed by the quality of audio when using Here One to make calls. People I spoke with were harder to understand than with my simple plugged-in headset, and they had a hard time hearing me.
For now, Here One is still more of a specialty product than a mass-market device, and as such will likely appeal to audio-obsessed early adopters, those who really want a quieter commute, and, perhaps, people who aren’t ready for a hearing aid but are willing to pay for some non-medical enhancements to their hearing. It will continue to get smarter, though—the company plans to release a feature in the coming months that will suggest a specific filter for you, taking into consideration factors like where you are and what time it is—and in the not-so-distant future its abilities will become more of a must-have for all of us.