AI-powered voice interfaces have given rise to a new class of devices competing to supplant our phones. There are friendly wireless speakers in our kitchens and helpful digital passengers in our cars. Among the most promising are in-ear computers—wireless earbuds that operate as always-on, voice-controlled Internet communication gateways.
It makes sense. We humans already wear headphones everywhere, and in the long stretches when we’re not barking at Siri, we’re listening to music or podcasts. But if the idea of in-ear computers is going to take off, the companies that make them have to figure out what happens when you shut off Spotify. Even when you’re not using the headphones, you’re still wearing them. It’s the tree-falls-in-the-forest of mobile computing: What sound do headphones make when nothing’s playing?
Saving people from their phones has become a common goal for wearables of all kinds, especially as digital assistants have started to mature.
Over the last 18 months, I’ve worn a variety of earbuds that claim to combine digital audio with the real world, so you can hear your music or podcasts without ignoring everything around you. Bragi’s Dash was one of the first to provide this “audio transparency,” which gives the impression that you’re not wearing isolating headphones, but playing music from a speaker only you can hear. The Dash’s problem was always that the supposedly “real-world” sound came through tinny and delayed. It felt as if I were being Truman-Showed into believing this is real, even though everything just seems a little bit… off.
Doppler Labs has been working on the same problem for the last couple of years, as it worked on a few products leading up to Here One, the $299 totally wireless headphone-puter it’s launching this November. I’ve tried a handful of prototypes over that time, each better than the last, but all with that same subtle wrongness.
Then, one day in early October, Doppler co-founder Fritz Lanman and CEO Noah Kraft changed my mind. The duo plopped me down in an upholstered armchair inside the Universal Music Group’s1 beautifully sterile office in downtown San Francisco and handed me two foam-tipped earbuds. They were the first Here One prototypes, Kraft told me as I shoved them into my ears. I was the first person outside the company to try them. Doppler actually wasn’t going to show them to anybody, let alone a WIRED reporter. But what came off the factory line so impressed the team, they accelerated the demo process.
As soon as the buds were snug in my ears, before he played music or even picked up the paired iPhone, Lanman asked me how it sounds. It took me a second to realize he was asking about the audio processing; Lanman’s voice sounded so natural, I didn’t even think about it. When I said they sound completely normal, Lanman and Kraft both fist-bumped me. “Our audio team is going to be so pumped you said that,” Kraft says.
Doppler, like Bragi and Apple and Samsung and almost certainly several dozen other companies we don’t yet know about, is trying to build a computer you put in your ears and forget about. I hate to invoke Her here, but Doppler and everyone else are clearly inspired by Spike Jonze’s idea about what can happen when you get a voice in your head that knows and understands you, that you communicate with the way you would a human being.
The software part is coming fast: two days before I met with Doppler, Google announced a series of new devices centered around its new Assistant. The day after that, Samsung bought Viv, the new product from the guys who created Siri. Doppler isn’t trying to compete there. “We don’t have the resources to build our own intelligent agent,” Lanman says. “We’re trying to think about how we give our customers the best access to those things.” The company’s line has always been the same: Doppler wants to make the last thing you ever put in your ears.
Demos are always controlled, and don’t always represent what a product is actually like in the world. Sometimes they’re even fake! But all that said, Doppler’s Here One demo is one of the wildest gadget experiences I’ve ever had. Lanman and I kept chatting normally, until he swiped down on his phone’s screen and instantly muted his voice. Then he played The Chainsmokers’ “Closer,” which thumped along shockingly powerfully through the nickel-sized wireless buds. Next, Lanman evened out the volume, so I could hear both him and the song. It was like the song was soundtracking our conversation, which is exactly what Kraft loves about it. “You could play the soundtrack to Gladiator all the time!” Kraft, always prone to excitable outbursts, practically danced with joy through the whole demo.
One of Here One’s core features is the ability to filter out certain sounds, like a siren or jet engine or crying baby. One by one, Lanman went through them all, playing the sound over big speakers and then muting them only in my ears. Later, he layered radio commentary over the sound of a baseball game, recorded at a real game in four channels by Doppler’s perfectionist sound engineer Gints Klimanis. Afterwards, I stood between Lanman and Kraft, and Lanman turned on directional hearing so that the six mics in my buds were tuned only to hear what’s in front of my face. It was like wearing audio blinders. Then Lanman turned it backwards, so I could hear only what was directly behind me—Kraft says this is eavesdropping mode, or maybe spy mode, or maybe something less sketchy-sounding. It all worked so well, I thought it was a trick; only my voice recorder proves that I was actually hearing something different from everyone else.
Making a product that works is an achievement, but it’s not enough. Doppler’s other challenge is really the bigger one, the same one facing everyone building a future where we don’t tap on screens all day: how the heck do people use these new-fangled contraptions?
Talk the Talk
The best and worst demo of Google Home at the company’s recent hardware announcement came when Rishi Chandra, who runs product management for Home, asked his device how to get a red wine stain out. The device then spoke rapidly for 19 uninterrupted seconds, offering lots of useful information and ingredient ratios that no sane person could possibly remember.
Doppler’s long-term plan is to get you out of your phone. Kraft has this whole rant where he clomps around the room miming a person walking with their head buried in their phone, then wonders aloud how soon it’ll be before we find that ridiculous. Saving people from their phones has become a common goal for wearables of all kinds, especially as digital assistants have started to mature. “Having quick access to a digital assistant through these earphones, lessening your reliance on your phone, I think those become capabilities that get more important over time,” says Ben Arnold, an analyst at the NPD Group.
But your phone, or a screen like it, is the right way to consume a lot of information. Even Her understood this. “Samantha talks to Theodore through the earpiece frequently,” Chris Noessel, author of Make it So: Interface Lessons from Sci-Fi, wrote after seeing the film. “When she needs to show him something, she can draw his attention to the cameo phone or a desktop screen.” Without that combination, Noessel concluded, the OS would have been much less useful.
The interface design team at Doppler is forever tweaking the interaction between your phone and your earbuds. “We know that as soon as the user pulls the phone out of their pocket,” says Sean Furr, the company’s head of UX and UI, “that’s friction to the experience.” For some things, it’s also unavoidable: there’s no point in reinventing the Spotify app, or trying to dream up some wild new way to dial phone numbers. Where they could, the team simply tried to make the app as natural as possible, and used gestures instead of buttons to make things feel more dynamic.
Users will know how to do most of the simple things the Here Ones can do. Taking phone calls, summoning Siri, and pausing music are all on the list of Things Everyone Understands. Doppler’s working on ways to expose users to some of the Here One’s more impressive features. The onboarding process includes information about real-world volume control and noise filtering, and when you walk into a loud room your app could prompt you to silence it. Ultimately, the company wants to do all that automatically and invisibly. Doppler’s takeover plan is to sell you a great set of truly wireless headphones, and then help you use them to make the world you live in sound perfect.
The word “perfect,” in that sentence, has wide-ranging definitions. One of which the team showed me at the end of the demo. In a different room, I sat down in a different chair, and Doppler’s head of R&D Jeff Baker handed me a different set of earbuds—an even earlier prototype, just a test model. Then Laura Cisneros, sitting across the table from me, told me a joke. I don’t remember much about the joke itself, something about snowmen and carrots. It wasn’t that funny. What I do remember is that Cisneros told the joke in Spanish, and I heard it in English.
The demo’s still early: it only worked in one of my ears, and the joke’s punchline didn’t come through for a really awkward five seconds or so. But it felt like the beginning of something big.
“Our dream vision,” Kraft says, “is you land at Charles De Gaulle. You have your Here buds with you—maybe we’re on Here Two by then—and you’re like wow, I don’t speak French. I’m going to go to the here kiosk and I’m going to buy a hard drive that only has the French language on it.” Just like that, you understand everyone around you. On a separate note, Doppler’s starting to explore what it can do in terms of helping people with hearing problems, though Kraft has to be careful to note Here One is not a medical device. (He always says it the same way, too, like it’s the FDA-proof lawyer-speak he has to use.) Both are a long way from your ears, but they make clear just how much you can do when you can understand and edit real-world sound.
Over the next few months, you might buy something like the Here Ones because they’re good wireless headphones—and your phone doesn’t have a headphone jack anyway. Soon after that, though, you might find yourself talking to them more than you think. And then things might get really crazy. Your headphones might start talking back.
1UPDATE: This story has been updated to accurately reflect in which music company’s beautifully sterile office our meeting took place.