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Experience Here, the augmented audio device from Doppler Labs

TechCrunch TechCrunch 4/04/2016 Felicia Williams

Doppler Labs’s augmented audio device, Here, seems to be all the rage in music hardware these days.

Doppler recently won a SXSW Innovation Award and will begin a partnership with Coachella starting next week. Each Coachella attendee received a code with their tickets to claim their free Here Active Listening devices to wear at the week-long music festival.

“We’re integrated into each stage,” says Doppler Labs Founder & CEO Noah Kraft. “We’ve created specific filters; we are going to have places on the ground where you can actually try the tech. And it’s been really important to us because we want people to wear this out in the world. It is not a headphone. It is a live listening device, and what better way to use it than a place like Coachella?”

I had never tried or really heard of augmented audio before I visited Doppler Labs. Unlike headphones, which simply transfer music from your device, the Here Active Listening system changes the way you experience live audio. The device uses a Bluetooth connection and lets you control the sound around you via the app. TechCrunch’s Jordan Crook recently wrote a full review of what it’s like to use Here, which goes into more details about what it is like to wear it around New York City. I, on the other hand, was really interested in the inspiration and design of the device.

“Everyone knows at this point what virtual reality is,” Kraft says. “You’re essentially creating a secondary world — different from the reality you’re living in. You put on some goggles and it allows you to be transported to something completely different. Now people are starting to also understand augmented, visual reality like HoloLens or Magic Leap, and that puts a layer of a filter on the way you experience the real world.

“Now audio augmented reality takes that same concept and applies it to your ears. It allows you to still hear the world but it allows you to filter and curate how you want to hear, what you want to hear, and what you don’t want to hear.”

The first thing I noticed is that the device is quite small considering all the tech packed into it. It’s light enough and comfortable to wear for 30 minutes or so at a time.

“Some of the earlier versions that we looked at — they just started getting bigger, bigger and bigger,” says Jacob Palmborg, Doppler’s director of design. “As we started adding more technology and more chips, the device started to grow. And when you try to fit into someone’s ear, there are only so many directions you can actually grow in.

“In the design process, we went through hundreds of iterations of this. Almost daily we went through new models, new concepts, new ideas that we could evaluate both in the office but also bring in a lot of users and get their feedback and thoughts about what we were making.”

Aesthetically, I felt comfortable wearing Here in the office and out and about town — not self-conscious at all. And I don’t think anyone was really looking all that closely at my ears and if they were it because they thought the hardware looked interesting, not out of place.

“We were trying to make something that did not come across as a medical device or a hearing aid but also didn’t look like your typical earbud or headphone,” says Palmborg.

The biggest challenge that came up over and over no matter who on the Doppler team I spoke with was the battery. It needed to fit into the device, not weigh it down and last long enough to fulfill the most common uses cases. I found that the battery worked fine and lasted longer than I’d ever need it to, largely thanks to the case that also charges the buds when they aren’t in your ears.

However, using Here while out and about did drain the battery on my phone. I’d imagine this is something that can be solved by running the software in the background. That said, I anticipate Cochella-goers will opt not to use the device, in favor of texting and taking photos, if this issue isn’t fixed soon.

If you are sold on Doppler’s Here, good luck getting your hands on one. Currently, the company has seen just under 80,000 sign-ups on its waitlist. But some still have a chance. The Doppler team is hand-selecting folks based on stories they submit — or you could purchase a ticket to Coachella.

When I ask Kraft how the team is reacting to all the buzz about Here, he said, “Frankly, it’s been a little surreal to see how positive and excited people are about Here Active Listening. We know the idea of a computer in your ears, like Her and Star Trek Babelfish. This is a potent space, but frankly we weren’t sure that audio augmented reality as a first feature set would be anything more than a niche product.”

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