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Wrap yourself in a cone of sound with this directional speaker

Engadget Engadget 1/06/2016 Nicole Lee

© Provided by Engadget

If you work in a crowded office, you're probably considerate enough to wear a pair of headphones so you don't disturb your co-workers with your raucous tunes. But headphones can be uncomfortable, plus they're cumbersome to put on and off if all you want to do is catch a few seconds of a YouTube clip. The Soundlazer VR, however, offers a different solution. Debuting today on Kickstarter, it's a unique speaker tech which aims to resolve that issue by surrounding you in a private cloud of sound.

Inside the Soundlazer VR is a slew of tiny little speakers that combine to create what founder Richard Haberkern says is a new directional audio system. It uses something called planar wave technology, which essentially broadcasts sound through parallel wave patterns that bounce off a curved reflector. "It's like taking a bunch of flashlights side-by-side and pointing them at your ears," he says. Haberkern is a serial inventor who's done several successful projects on Kickstarter before, like the GPS Cookie and the Lumapad.

Sound reflectors aren't anything new of course, but Haberkern's take on it is a little different. He says he developed specific planar wave drivers that would work with a linear reflector instead of the more common parabolic models. This, he says, results in an "ultra high bandwidth" directional audio beam. Plus, unlike most parabolic reflectors, the Soundlazer's slim design looks a little more appealing when hanging over your desk.

Haberkern gave us a brief demonstration of the Soundlazer VR in our San Francisco office. He hung it over a desk with a wire hanging system which is adjustable thanks to a spring loaded cable locking mechanism. He says the recommended height is around three to four feet above the desk, but you can of course change it to your preference. You'll still need to connect it to a power outlet (via a standard 120/240VAC universal power adapter), but Haberkern says the power is delivered via the hanging steel cables so you won't see any messy wires. It transmits your computer's audio through Bluetooth. There's also a two channel stereo amplifier built in.

I sat underneath the Soundlazer VR and watched a few YouTube music videos on the connected laptop. I heard the sound pretty loud and clear, as if they were transmitted through regular speakers. The audio level is consistent from the top of the unit all the way down, so you could theoretically use it with an adjustable-height sit-stand desk without issue. Then I got up from the desk and walked a few feet away. The audio gradually became softer and more muffled, and at around eight feet apart, I couldn't make out much of the song's lyrics at all. That crisp audio I heard just a few minutes ago was suddenly just background noise.

At this point, you might be wondering why Haberkern added "VR" to the product name. He says it's because the Soundlazer surrounds you in a "virtual reality of sound," not because it has anything to do with VR. You could theoretically use it while wearing a VR headset underneath, which would presumably be more comfortable than having to wear headphones along with the headset, but that's sort of a stretch. It's unfortunate, because the use of "VR" here is pretty misleading.

That said, Haberkern also added VR to the name to differentiate it from a previous product he invented a few years ago which bore the same Soundlazer moniker. The original Soundlazer, however, used tiny ultrasonic transducers to project audio, which resulted in a much lower fidelity than he wanted. Still, he took lessons learned from that project and applied it to the "VR" edition he's pitching right now.

Ideally, Haberkern wants Soundlazer VR to be used in an office environment much like ours, with desks next to each other. Still, I wonder if that's entirely practical. Even at eight feet away from the computer, I could still hear audio coming from it. Haberkern says that we'd eventually adjust to the audio levels so that we'd hear only what was coming out of our own SoundLazer VR units, but I'd have to use it on a regular basis to be sure. Additionally, the fact that you'd have to actually hang it from the ceiling sounds like way too much work for normal people. That said, Haberkern is selling a smaller desktop version of the Soundlazer VR that just sits on the table, no wire installation required.

The Junior version of the Soundlazer VR starts at around $169 on Kickstarter while the "full" size model starts at $209. If the campaign is successful, Haberkern hopes to ship the product by October this year.

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