An interview with Johan Birger, part of the Jabra Stone design team

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It’s not every day I get excited about a Bluetooth headset but the Jabra Stone is an exception. The headset, in short, looks like a smooth stone. The earpiece fits into a small, portable charging unit and almost disappears in your pocket. The electronics inside are amazingly small and include dual microphones to reduce wind and traffice noises. In order to get to the bottom of this melding of high art and high tech we talked to Johan Birger, part of the Jabra Stone design team in Copenhagen.

CrunchGear: Tell me about yourself.

Johan: I started out studying industrial design at Lund Institute of Technology in Sweden, but later found out I wanted deeper understanding of engineering and construction for designing, so I enrolled at Malmo University, where I pursued a modern engineering degree that blended product design with traditional mechanical engineering. My greatest design schooling came from my first job at Curve ID, an industrial design consultancy in NYC that has collaborated with international clients and brands such as Nike, Colgate, Altec Lansing, and Kenneth Cole, where I learned many of the basic design skills. I have also worked as a designed in France and in Sweden before moving across the water to Copenhagen, Denmark.
As a product designer at GN Mobile, I work on investigating and developing future design concepts for Jabra Bluetooth headsets.

I posit that Bluetooth headsets are the most boring technology on Earth. Convince me otherwise.
We believe otherwise — and the Jabra STONE is evidence of how design is reinvigorating the Bluetooth headset category.

The product category is still in sort of its cradle, but as the mobile phone continues to play a larger role in the way we consume music and media, we can expect great enhancements in features and styles. With the right design, headsets can live up to their potential as a practical wireless solution that increases the ability to multi-task.

The engineering that goes into each headset is also rather complex – for the Jabra STONE, in particular, we were faced with fitting square components inside the headset without sacrificing the design. There’s a lot of technology – some of the smallest components in the market — packed into a device that’s so small and lightweight. This includes a touch volume panel that saves space inside the headset without jeopardizing the design and a chipset with built-in flash to save space inside the headset.

Where was the Stone designed? Does it have European genetics?

The Jabra STONE was designed in Copenhagen by the Jabra design team. It certainly bears a Scandinavian modern design heritage, though is also ergonomic in design. While many concepts that would evolve the Bluetooth category were presented in the planning stages, we ultimately selected an iconic shape with a sweeping design and minimalistic style. There is no wasted or extraneous material — every detail, part, and feature on the headset is necessary. The microphone boom arm in particular was a major focus for us on this headset, and the new, intelligent, proprietary Jabra-engineered technology within the headset allowed us to remove the boom arm from the face entirely without compromising audio quality. This was a major accomplishment from a design perspective – it’s a completely new, discreet look.

What is the lab like where you work? How much science goes into the design? How much art?

For the Jabra STONE, art and style were the starting point, whereas ‘science’ followed the shape. We believe style has to be the driver of headset design, now that many headset features are becoming standard, such as the dual-mic. The biggest challenge when style dictates the overall shape is finding a location for all the necessary technology that’s expected with a high end headset. It’s like trying to fit a square peg, or battery in this case, into a round hole. Once you understand the basic building blocks of headsets though, you can really create something different, and let design change a rectangular box into something really quite elegant.

What were the major difficulties in building this headset?

It was certainly one of the most difficult projects in terms of the engineering. The sweeping, rounded shape doesn’t lend itself to large, square batteries, so it was a process to find the right balance of talk time and the design of the headset itself. Another challenge was balancing the three key factors that drive the design: first, the sweeping shape in itself, which needs to be smooth; second, the STONE charger, which has to integrate perfectly with the headset to create a smooth shape; and last, the overall design needs to fit the gamut of ear sizes. All three have to be in perfect balance for the shape to work. Of course with the innovative headset shape alone, there were an array of mechanical engineering and production challenges with the materials used to achieve a twisting, sweeping, elegant design.

Why a stone? Where did you get the idea?

The Jabra STONE concept was developed based on feedback from our consumer research and our design heritage, with previous models like the JX10 and JX20. The idea behind the stone shape was to create something very natural, yet tactile and palm-sized. The stone-shaped portable charger was initially brainstormed as a simple carrying case solution for the headset, without a battery in it, but we’ve added an element of functionality to it. The smooth, round case complements the sweeping shape and rounded edges of the headset and unifies a number of shapes and lines into one simple elegant stone.

What’s next in industrial design? Have we hit a wall in terms of miniaturization?

We continue to push the boundaries of Bluetooth headsets with innovative design — and as with the Jabra STONE, we’ve creatively placed the battery and components in strategic places in relation to the ear. As the technical components become smaller and smaller over time, headsets will continue to evolve in both in terms of wearing-style and size. As the demand for Bluetooth devices increases – whether it be for hands-free driving solutions, increased productivity at work, etc. – we’re actually seeing our partners and manufacturers dedicate more energies to the miniaturization of importance, because we all recognize how important design is in terms of adoption.