For years now, we’ve though of Augmented Reality in the context of our vision — Google Glass started the trend, and the Microsoft HoloLens enforced it. But the folks at Doppler Labs believe the future of augmented reality starts with the ears. It’s Here.
The Doppler Labs Here buds, live in-ear audio tuners that let you tune and tweak your own hearing experience, have started shipping units to Kickstarter backers. I also got a pair to check out for review.
These are their stories.
The Here Buds are unlike anything I’ve ever put in or on my ears. Unlike headphones, which simply take music from your device and wire or stream via Bluetooth to your ears, the Here Active Listening system is all about changing the way you experience live audio.
For all intents and purposes, each of the buds has its own micro-processor that is readjusting audio in real-time, as you listen to it. Made for audiophiles and live music enthusiasts, Here can give the user a fully customized experience when they go to a show.
For example, you can turn up the bass if you’re watching a Diplo set. Or, if you happen to have a headache and need a less powerful version of Diplo, you can turn down the bass and focus on the trebles.
This all happens through a Bluetooth connection to your iPhone, where the app gives the user controls over every part of the EQ. Beyond that, Here also offers control for basic volume, as well as special effects like Echo, Flange, Fuzz, etc.
Of course, the special effects are fun when you’re messing around or talking to friends, but the real utility of the Here Active Listening System comes in the live EQ tuner and the volume controls.
The first few times I put on the Here Buds, I was simply hanging out with people. There was no live music — no music at all really, but my mind was blown.
Hearing a real-time echo for your own voice and the voices of those around you is a delightful little shock, and a bit weird to get used to. But once I realized that I could actually control all the noise coming in to my head, I decided to use them to explore the world around me.
Though I didn’t go to a proper show with the Here Buds, I did venture into the NYC Subway system with the little guys more than a few times over the course of my review period. The Subway is full of live performers, from drummers to guitarists to Mariachi bands to one-man bands, all as screeching trains pull in and out of the stations.
The most important thing about the Here Active Listening System is that there is no latency. Whatever you’d hear without them, you hear with them at the exact same time, which is a feat of engineering both for the hardware and the software.
When trains were coming in and out of the station, I used the Noise Mask filter to keep their screeching to a minimum. Then I turned up the volume to get a closer listen to the artists. Echo made a bucket drummer sound like a magician. An increase in the treble section made the Mariachi band sound like a solo performer, until I brought back the lower notes and heard the harmony.
I’m no audiophile, but the Here Active Listening System made me feel like a live music producer.
In short, these things operate as promised.
Look And Feel
The Here Active Listening System comes in its own little case that can charge the buds. If you’re going to an all-day festival, you’ll get about six hours of the buds, and can add another six hours by placing them in the case (also portable and small enough to fit in your pocket).
They are a bit bigger than a normal headphone, but considering that each one is its own mini-computer, that makes a lot of sense. The Here Buds protrude a bit from the ears with round little bulbs, though they aren’t nearly as unattractive as those neon (or worse, flesh-colored) foam ear plugs that some concert-goers wear.
With customizable soft touch covers, the Here Buds are meant to fit any ear, no matter how big, small or oddly shaped it is. And for the most part, they’re rather comfortable. The longest I kept them in for a single period was about 90 minutes, and I can imagine my ears becoming a bit more fatigued using them for six hours straight as a festival.
That said, the portable charging case offers a great way to stay organized when the Here isn’t being worn and a useful way to take a break.
The Here app is clean and simple. However, without a clear vision for what you want to hear, all of the controls can be a bit overwhelming.
There are more than a handful of special effects, as well as custom filters, and since people aren’t used to being able to custom tune the world around them, making those decisions can be tough.
The filters for bass boost, Noise Mask and the volume control have an obvious benefit. But when it comes to individual EQ tuning, things get a bit more complicated.
In the future, Here has the opportunity to know where you are and learn what you like to adjust accordingly. And with an upcoming Coachella partnership, the Here can do just that (more on that later).
Setting up the Here Buds is one of the easiest on-boarding experiences I’ve ever had. Download the app and sign up, and the app will direct you to turn on Bluetooth and set your Here buds on the screen of the phone (they don’t actually need to touch the phone because Bluetooth).
In seconds, the buds are paired and ready to listen.
The app then walks you through the various controls, which not only include filters but specific settings like Bass Boost, Hallway, and Abbey Road Studio.
The Past And The Future
Doppler Labs started out with a product called Dubs. Dubs was a mechanical ear plug that was meant to be worn in clubs and at live concerts to protect your ears from too many decibels. They were less conspicuous than traditional ear plugs and functioned without any power, computational or otherwise.
Dubs sold well, but the ear plug was also a testing ground for the Here Active Listening System, determining whether people would buy ear buds that are not actually headphones.
With Here, the company has gone through a number of iterations to bring down the size and make sure everything performs well. But it’s more than just design and performance that complete a transaction. Then, Doppler put the Here buds on Kickstarter.
The company saw more than 2,000 backers who contributed a total sum of $600K+ to the project. But mainstream adoption takes more than Kickstarter nerds and audiophiles.
Most people are wary of new technology like this, and without being a die-hard live music fan, it can be hard to realize why you might actually want the Here Active Listening system.
That said, Doppler is partnering with Coachella to offer the Here Active Listening system to every single person who buys a ticket to the music festival.
“The Coachella partnership presented an opportunity to make Here the most widely adopted AR or VR product in history,” said Doppler Labs cofounder Fritz Lanman. “As the world’s greatest live music experience, Coachella is the perfect way to introduce the world to the concept of ‘audio augmented reality’ – and to establish Here not only as a magical product but also a social product that is designed to further tune you into your world, unlike a headphone – which one can obviously not wear in a social setting.”
Coachella puts the Here Active Listening system in the hands of relatively young and cool people who have a very obvious reason to use it, at the show. As a part of that partnership, the Here system will have pre-set filters for every set on every stage, so that users can hear the song exactly as the artist intended from the live stage.
“It is one thing to create great tech, and it is another to get people to wear it proudly,” said Lanman. “For us, Coachella helps us ensure we are not Google Glass; rather we are creating wearable tech that people actually want to wear to some of life’s most amazing experiences.”
But live music is just the start. Eventually, Doppler wants every ear to be equipped with a mic and a computer, 24/7, so that people can hear exactly what they want, and only that.
“Long term, we’d love to enable real-time language translation, etc. and to make voice-input/audio-output mainstream UX paradigms – and generally to establish the ear as the focal point for the next phase of computing,” said Lanman.
All in all, my Here experience was a good one, though I’d love to see rapid development on the software side. When the Here buds can understand the world around me and change accordingly to what they know I like, then I’m sold. The less I have to dive into an app to change my hearing experience, the more likely I am to wear these all the time.
You can check out the Here Active Listening system here, and if you want you can join the waitlist, which is currently 30,000 strong. Or buy a ticket to Coachella.