Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Silicon Valley has so far struggled to convince people to wear technology on their wrists. Will it fare better now that it is targeting their ears?

Doppler Labs, a San Francisco-based start-up, is pioneering the new gadget category known as "hearables": earphones that can augment sounds from the world around us.

"Headphones’ main purpose is listening," says Noah Kraft, Doppler’s CEO. "Our main purpose is hearing."

That ambition sets Doppler’s new Bluetooth earphones, Here One, apart from the likes of Apple’s AirPods, although at first glance the products seem somewhat similar. Like AirPods, Doppler’s two buds are fully wireless and untethered, slotting into a little carry case to charge.

Here One can be used to stream music or talk on the phone, while tapping the earbuds’ circular exterior a couple of times will bring up Siri or Google’s virtual assistant. On these fundamental functions, Here One works well: I found the Bluetooth connection to my iPhone 7 Plus to be pretty reliable both indoors and outside, while sound quality when listening to music is richer than Apple’s buds.

However, Doppler is charging $300 for Here One, almost twice as much as AirPods, a price that demands something more than just being a good wireless headphone. That is where the company’s "smart noise filters" and "real-world volume control" come in.

The headphones neatly demonstrated this technology as soon as I paired them with their mobile app. After a chime in each ear to indicate they were connected, the noise around me slowly started to fade in -like someone slowly turning up the volume on the world. Here One cleverly combines noise-cancelling technology with three tiny microphones in each ear that allow you to hear the people around you without having to remove the buds, even if you are listening to music.

Switching between filtered and what Doppler calls "bypass" modes can be done by tapping once on either bud. More sophisticated controls require pulling out the app. At launch, there are eight filters tailored for particular environments or situations. Doppler says more will follow in software updates and in future it hopes to create a sort of app store for the ears, able to dynamically adapt to its environment based on location or situation.

Individual settings tune out background noise on an aircraft, on the street, in a crowd or in an open-plan office. I have not yet taken them on a flight, but on buses and underground trains Here One was able to tone down the engine din.

More intriguing are three more settings that do not just dial down the entire world but attempt to tune in to the things that you do want to hear. Using those three mics in each ear and what Doppler calls "computational hearing" algorithms, Here One can amplify speech in front or behind you, or from friends around your table in a restaurant, while damping down everyone else.

Sitting opposite my wife in a noisy San Francisco bar, after no small amount of fiddling with the Here One app to get the volume right, this technology really did work: the bar’s music and hubbub dimmed while my wife’s voice came through just as clearly as if I was not wearing headphones. Despite the audio processing, there was no "latency" or delay.

Even though the technology works, I am still not sure I would want to use Here One too often in bars, restaurants or the office. The problem is less with Doppler’s impressive software than the hardware.

While each pair comes with a handful of rubber and foam appendages to fit any ear, I found the tube down my ear canal and necessary suction uncomfortable after a while, especially when talking.

Battery life, at just three hours in "listening" mode or two when streaming music, also makes it hard to imagine using them all day, although the carry case recharges them in under an hour.

More fundamentally, Here One faces the same wearable-tech etiquette issue that Google Glass and, to some extent, Apple Watch does. If glancing at a tiny screen on your wrist or inside a pair of spectacles can make your companions question whether they really have your attention, what kind of message does plugging your ears with headphones send?

Furthermore, the look of the buds (available in black or white) is not subtle. When I first put them in, one colleague asked if I was wearing a hearing aid. It is an appropriate question: while Doppler says they are not intended to perform any medical function, the audio enhancements they offer could help those who are hard of hearing. However, given that so much hearing loss is caused by listening to headphones at excessive volume, I wonder if another headphone is the best solution.

Verdict

At a time when Silicon Valley is getting excited about augmented reality apps such as Snapchat and Pokémon Go, Here One points to an intriguing future of "augmented audio". Doppler’s technology is impressive, even if it does come with serious trade-offs in battery life and comfort. Yet the main barriers to "hearables" taking off are not audible but visual and social.

My head likes Here One but I am not sure I have the heart to keep wearing them.

© The Financial Times 2017

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