What It’s Like To Wear Bionic Earbuds

What It’s Like To Wear Bionic Earbuds

If you love live music, the new Here Active Listening System is an impossibly nerdy idea that might change the way you experience your favourite hobby. I’ve been using one of the first production versions of the sound-altering tech for a few days, and I’m excited about the potential for a world in which I might never hear anything except for exactly what I want to — exactly the way I want to.

At its core, Here is two computerised earbuds which capture the sound from the world around you with a little microphone, process it in real time, and spit altered sound into your ear canal, according to parameters that you’ve set in the accompanying smartphone app. The buds are relatively discreet and fit snugly in your ear without any discomfort. At one point I did drop one of the black buds in a dark bar, and it took my five minutes and a lot of embarrassing smartphone-flashlight hunting to find it.

For now Doppler Labs, the company behind the technology, envisions Here primarily as a way to interact with live music. It’s basically really fancy earplugs. (You might recall, the company actually got its start selling fashion-forward earplugs.)

If you’ve ever used earplugs at a show — even really good ones — you know that they kind of take your out of the experience. It’s very hard to reduce the sound pressure level reaching your ears without also altering the sound to the point that it’s no longer realistic. This sucks, but I still wear earplugs because I don’t want to go deaf from my heavy metal addiction. The Here Active Listening System’s most basic functionality is volume control. It allows you to decrease the loudness of sound around you by 22dB, or increase it by 6 dB. Imagine having a volume control for your life. It’s wonderful. As a set of earplugs, Here’s potential already starts to reveal itself.

The technology goes further than a simple volume control, of course. The app allows you to alter the fundamental characteristics of the sound you’re hearing by applying different filters. In a live show setting, the coolest tool is the simple equaliser which allows you to control the sound of five frequency bands from 180 Hz to 6.8 kHz — the range of human hearing extends significantly above and below these ranges, but a lot of the key music frequencies you want to hear will fall within the range. (A trumpet, for example, goes from 170 Hz to 1 kHz.)

The five-band EQ lets you do a lot very quickly, and with a little experimentation I was able to dial in the sound of the Americana band at my local bar to a better mix. It’s definitely weird to not know exactly which frequencies you’re listening to in the world when you’re trying to alter sound. A pro might know exactly what frequency band a snare drum or an organ’s low register sit on, but I have to guess. It would have been nice to have some kind of readout in the app to give me a sense for where the band was at.

Beyond the simple EQ, the app allows you to apply pres

et filters in either “Tune In” or “Tune Out” categories. Tune In categories attempt to simulate the sound of different spaces. Options include Carnegie Hall and Abby Road as well as more general categories like a stadium. I didn’t especially like these effects, which with the exception of the small studio setting, gave music an artificially processed character.

The Tune-Out filters are still in “beta,” and they’re supposed to apply noise processing to cancel out the sound you don’t want to hear in specific environments, like a noisy office, a crowd, an aeroplane, or the subway. These were puzzling effects that were barely perceptible at times. I haven’t had the chance to take a flight in the last 24 hours, however, I did ride the subway, and I can assure you that even with subway tuned out, you can hear the screech of wheels on tracks. In other words, the Tune Out effect doesn’t create the deafening silence you get from noise-cancelling headphones — it’s more of a subtle adjustment that still leaves you in the world around you. (Which admittedly, if you’re walking around a city, you probably don’t want to be in a bubble.)

Finally, the app takes a cue from music production software and allows you to apply intentionally wonky effects like echo, flange, and fuzz to the sound around you. These effects are trippy and insane. Doppler Labs’ Fritz Lanman told me these effects aren’t intended for the casual listener — they’re intended for more “creative” people who want to alter the way the world sounds in crazy ways.

Here Active Listening ends up hinting at a kind of bionic hearing that goes far beyond the narrow concept the company introduces with its live music pitch. “This is the concept car,” Lanman said. “We’re putting it out there to introduce the world to in-ear computing.”

And the company is introducing people very slowly. The Here Active Listening System isn’t a thing most people can buy yet. Doppler Labs is shipping the current version of the product to people who supported a Kickstarter for the product last year. It’s also being made available to the lucky souls who managed to score tickets to Coachella before they sold out. The hearing technology will be integrated throughout the two-weekend music festival. For the most part, however, you’re not going to be able to go out and buy Here Active Listening in its current form

Which is to say we’ve only had a chance to listen to version one of what will end up being a much more nuanced product down the line. In-ear computing is lofty goal, and one that might not mean anything to you right now because in-ear computers aren’t really something that exists yet. The best we’ve done so far would be the Motorola Hint, which was basically a supercharged Bluetooth earpiece. It also never made it to market. But the concept is much broader — Think the near sentient computer Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with in Her. Lanman fantasizes of a day when Here might do Babelfish-like real-time translation.

The problem with introducing that concept is two-fold, according to Lanman. First of all, the artificial intelligence that exists isn’t good enough, and second of all, the interaction with voice-controlled assistants like Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana is just too awkward for now. Even if you could convince people of the aesthetics of in-ear computer, and even if you can get the technology to work, most people still won’t want to use it.

So if we consider Here to be the very first baby steps towards in-ear computing, is it something we really want? In my limited experience, the effect is striking — -it’s truly transformative — but in its current iteration, it’s also more disorienting than enlightening. It’s a little bit like drugs: I want to turn it on, and get high on all the crazy effects that are possible, but I definitely don’t want to walk around in a passive state of experiencing bionic hearing at all times. I don’t want to “Tune Out,” as the system’s newest feature implies. For the most part, I’m content to hear the sounds of the world just the way they are.