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What if in the next 5 years wireless, connected headphones had the same degree of impact on our lives as the smartphone? How would connected headphones, like the AirPods, change our lives? What does life look like when half the world walks around with headphones all day?

Most people would say that’s a very isolating world with even lesser human connection than we have today. But to the contrary, I believe that headphones can actually restore a bit of what we had before cell phones and smartphones stole our attention.

Audio Augmentation is what I’m referring to.

Audio Augmentation

The smartphone’s main value is its ever-presence. It’s always there for us to interact with. Headphones are beginning to enter this ever-present territory. And computing chips are elevating headphones from listening tools to Internet-connected devices.

Audio Augmentation is the idea that we can interact with the digital landscape through our voices and ears in a way that complements the visual, digital tools we already use.

What experiences will come with Audio Augmentation?

  • Soundwalks – A walk in the park becomes a spatially responsive dive into a story. Think of a narrator telling a story as you walk through the ruins at Pompei (but the story only unfolds based on each step you’re taking).
  • Digital Graffiti – A social network where you leave voice memos in space for your friends (or strangers) to discover.
  • Audio Apps – A market entirely for audio games, productivity tools, etc. SoundPacman is an early look at this.
  • Universal Remote – The headphones become a remote control that can act on the behalf of any of your devices. It also consolidates your notifications to one audio stream.

That last point is the Holy Grail of Audio Augmentation.

Imagine if you didn’t even need to take out your phone every time you felt a vibration in your pocket. You’d be a better person for it because you could keep your head up more often. I think we all want a little bit of the old world where we all weren’t so engrossed in our phones.

The Apple AirPods are the first consumer hardware that is capable of audio augmentation at a large scale. And I believe that they’re the device that will introduce or popularize audio augmentation for these reasons:

  • They’ve already crafted this “always-in” behavior where people find themselves leaving them in for hours throughout the day.
  • They have computing directly in the device – which means they know your geolocation, can search the web, connect and control other devices, etc.
  • All Apple devices can communicate with one another.
  • And they have reached a mass consumer scale.

It’s why I think AirPods Apps will be a huge deal in a few years. Still, Apple’s AirPods aren’t the optimal design for audio augmentation.

Keep Your Ears Open

For Audio Augmentation to be at its best, in the most humanistic design possible, our ears need to be unobstructed. Headphones have a way of blocking us out from everyone else. Onlookers may think that person doesn’t want to be bothered. Likewise, wearers can’t hear their surroundings as well. It creates isolation.

Frog Design has created a prototype along the lines of “unobstructed, open headphone” design, which you can see below:

The Bose Frames, give us an idea as to how we can achieve Audio Augmentation with other head-mounted devices. Their sunglasses omit audio from the sunglasses arm, allowing you to still hear the world around you.

And my personal favorite are the Aftershokz. They’re bone-conducting headphones which I believe give us the truest sense of Audio Augmentation. I’ve been a huge proponent of them for nearly two years. You can usually see me wearing them throughout the day.

Upon further digging, I found out that bone-conduction headphones were developed for military and SWAT operations because it allowed personnel to hear orders while hearing their surroundings. And if it’s good enough for the military, then it’s good enough for the public consumer.

After hardware design, the next most important component for Audio Augmentation to truly become something special, is that we need to create a way for multiple streams of audio to coexist. We don’t want different audio streams obstructing one another:

Bill Buxton, principal researcher at Microsoft Research is working on ways to use sound to provide directions, without barking “turn left” into users’ ears. Using technology in headphones, like tiny gyroscopes to detect head position, he can place sounds anywhere in a user’s environment.

Jack Stewart, Marketplace

In other words, he’s creating sounds that signify things we do digitally. In the same way that your oven buzzer is very recognizable without the oven explicitly saying, “Hey, your pizza is done.”

With the right hardware design and the right sound design, the sky’s the limit for Audio Augmentation. We may still be a few years off, but the possibilities are still very exciting.

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