INSIGHT

Augmented reality for ears

Who owns your brain?

“The ear is the last mile to the brain,” says sound expert Michael Breidenbruecker, “and whoever owns that last mile will be in a very powerful position.”

Little wonder, then, that Breidenbruecker is among a host of researchers exploring tech opportunities that tap into the power of hearing. Take Nura headphones, which tailor sounds to the quirks of the user’s ear, resulting in a superior listening experience. They were developed at the influential HAX Accelerator in Shenzhen, attracted funding of £1.2m on Kickstarter in 2016 and the first orders are due for delivery early this year.

Tech-fulled superpowers

Nura is just one example of aural – rather than visual – augmented reality, in a rapidly growing sector. True to augmented reality’s meaning of increasing or expanding reality, Aural Augmented Reality, or AAR, is extra-sensory perception, giving users a heightened experience of the world around them. It is a bit like a superpower. Only not make believe.

For instance, Theverge.com reports on Hero “hearing” headphones – soon to become the next millennial-hipster must-have. Developed by a company called Stages, they allow the user to hear sounds coming from a particular direction even while music is being played. The device can also be trained to recognise voices or words such as “Excuse Me”, so that the headset goes quiet and users don’t miss out on important conversations. The days of being able to pretend not to know when someone’s talking to you might be numbered.

A psychedelic aural mess

Wired.co.uk bangs the drum for Amped, an AAR app from the Finnish-Swedish startup Zoundio. Designed for would-be electric or acoustic guitar players, the application takes the user’s playing and, even in the early stages, makes it sound accomplished with the addition of algorithmically added chords. The idea is to minimise the frustration and boredom that often goes with slowly mastering an instrument. Wired writer Rowland Manthorpe says: “Because the overall effect is good rather than bad, you hear what you wished you sounded like, so your motivation doesn't fall away.” As the app slogan goes: “Sound awesome. Stay motivated.”

There’s a less idealistic purpose for the Hear AAR app, currently available on iTunes. Writing for Theverge.com, Vlad Savov calls it the “trippiest” application he has ever come across. That’s because the...

AAR technology takes snippets of sound from the user’s environment, pushes it through a variety of filters and onwards into the earphones, where the effect has been variously described as magical, entertaining and, as per Savov, “a psychedelic aural mess”.

 
 

The race for translation earphones

Also giving tech fans something to smile about are Here One earbuds. BusinessInsider.com says they “might be the most technically advanced earphones in the world”. Developed by San Francisco-based Doppler Labs, they can isolate specific sounds, cancelling out the din in a busy restaurant, for example. Business Insider reports that CEO and cofounder, Noah Kraft, is also developing an AAR earphone tool that will translate speech in real time.

A hollywood sci-fi trope

This function, it seems, will be a reality in the near future with various AAR startups and companies racing to achieve it. Wearable.com reports Bragi are also in the running, along with current frontrunner, Waverly Labs, a New York-based startup that raised more than $3.5m for Pilot, its translating earpiece. The first generation Pilot is set to launch in May, and according to cnet.com, will work between users who are both using earpieces. “The concept realizes the dream of an instant, universal language translation device,” writes Justin Yu, “that's shown up in so many science-fiction movies that it's practically become a Hollywood trope.” Indeed the idea of a universal translator even has its own Wikipedia entry.

 

Yet so far there is no sign of a device that will translate speech occurring spontaneously in the vicinity of the user – but as AAR gathers pace and disruption continues to shake things up, it’s going to happen.

 

And in the meantime, we’ll keep our ears to the ground.

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