Doppler Labs emerged four years ago as a rare breed in the startup world. It had an original idea - putting a computer in everyone's ear and allowing them to control the sound of their world - and it was ambitious without forcing snake oil down people's throats. On Wednesday, the company announced that it was going out of business.
Image: Doppler Labs
Doppler released its first product, Dubs, back in 2014. They were reasonably priced "Acoustic Filters" that looked decent and protected your ears at concerts without altering the natural sound too much. Then, after pulling together some Kickstarter funding, Doppler started to show off its real vision with the Here Active Listening System. This was a far more complicated ear plug - a Bluetooth-connected computer, speaker and microphone that was controlled with an app. A user could adjust various presets to get just the right frequency model for a concert or tweak the ambient noise in various environments. It also offered some wacky effects for people who want to make their world a little more surreal. "This is the concept car," Doppler's co-founder Fritz Lanman told Gizmodo when Here was first released. "We're putting it out there to introduce the world to in-ear computing."
While the first Here system offered some interesting novelties, it was mostly just a good set of electronic ear plugs. Doppler's third product, Here One, was supposed to be the game changer that proved this startup was on to something; an improved version of the Here Active Listening System that also allowed you to play music through the earbuds.
In a post-mortem autopsy published by Wired today, Doppler's co-founders, Lanman and Noah Kraft, noted they were ahead of the game - not only were they building a hardware company that aimed to build a hearing-based world of computing, they were producing wireless earbuds just as that market was about to take off. Kraft and Lanman raised $US24 million ($31.3 million) from investors in the winter of 2016, and they were poised to beat Apple's AirPods to market when things went wrong. Armed with a fresh product demo from manufacturers in China, the execs started to feel out major companies that might want to buy Doppler Labs. They declined to tell Wired how much they were asking, but it was a lot. "We thought we were the shit," Kraft said. But potential buyers wanted to see that the company could actually sell its product.
In the spring of 2016, Doppler pushed forward with production after switching manufacturers. Then, a delayed component caused them to push back their release date for the Hear One to February of 2017. They missed the holidays and wouldn't be out before the AirPods after all. Then they had to raise another $US10 million ($13 million). And when they finally had the product ready for market, it had a fatal flaw.
When Gizmodo reviewed the Hear One, we were impressed and overall positive. Everything that the earbuds were supposed to do, they did well. The only sticking point was the two-hour battery life. Apple's AirPods lasted longer and cost half of the Hear One's $US300 ($391) price tag. "We focused so much on size and compactness with Here One that we kind of compromised battery life," Lanman told Wired. The team expected the battery life to be an issue, but then users started reporting problems with the included charging case as well. With an expectation of selling several hundred thousand devices, the Here One was a failure that only moved 25,000 units.
This is a shame. Not only did Doppler want to give the public some new options in the headphone game, but it was attempting to expand into the medical device world. The Hear One could boost the volume of your surroundings by a small amount, but full-blown hearing aids have required a prescription until recently. Along with Senator Elizabeth Warren, Doppler's team successfully lobbied Congress to pass the Over The Counter Hearing Aid Act of 2017. The Here Two was planned to refine the first device's flaws, and a new app for people with mild to moderate hearing loss was going to add extra functionality to the company's products.
The Here Two won't be coming, but the new app will be released for free as soon as its approved by Apple's app store. The Doppler team claims it had significant interest in a buyout from one of the big five tech companies, but it apparently isn't going to work out.
Doppler thought it was getting in at the right time, but the company was exactly wrong. Kraft tells Wired their mistake was simple: "We fucking started a hardware business!" Recent trends do indicate that hardware startups are not the way to go. And big companies such as Google are moving into Doppler's world with products such as the Pixel Buds that offer real-time translation services, a feature that was key to Doppler's long-term plans. Voice recognition software is also getting closer to the point that in-ear computing will be a lot more viable.
Every startup frames its mission as some sort of bold, world-changing odyssey that's going to change the world. Not a drop of sympathy should be given to the high-priced tea kettles and juicers that use phrases such as "journey to elevate the tea experience". But Doppler really did want to help people protect or improve their hearing, and along the way it tried to offer a unique, tailored approach to hearing in general. Now, Doppler's engineers will probably have to join one of the bigger companies that control our tech in order to fully realise their goals.