Doppler Labs’ founders believe the Here One earphones, which will sell for US$299, can be worn all day. Courtesy Doppler Labs
Doppler Labs’ founders believe the Here One earphones, which will sell for US$299, can be worn all day. Courtesy Doppler Labs

After augmented reality wins with Pokemon Go, is augmented audio reality next?

With Pokemon Go expanding to more countries and the mania continuing to run unabated, the future is looking bright for augmented reality. But AR, which overlays computer graphics on to the real world via a screen or display of some sort, is still entirely a visual medium.

So are we ready for augmented audio reality?

Doppler Labs believes we are. The New York-based company is targeting this autumn for the launch of Here One, a set of earphones that promise to enhance or quiet the sounds of daily life that are all around us.

Is the neighbour playing his music too loud, or is a nearby baby’s crying distracting you from working? Conversely, would you rather that peaceful sound of wind rustling through the trees outside the window or even a conversation on the other side of the room were louder?

Like a stereo equaliser, Here One promises to let you turn up the sounds from reality that you want to hear and tune out the rest. Just as visual AR enhances the real world with computation, so too will audio AR as processors separate, amplify and silence sounds gathered by sensors.

It’s at least as exciting as its visual counterpart, but audio AR also faces some of the same problems – as well as new ones unique to it.

Doppler Labs founders’ long-term plan is to create a version of the Here One earphones, which will sell for US$299, that can be worn all day, but that’s also what the engineers behind the failed Google Glass thought about their visually focused AR spectacles. They may similarly be thinking too much about the benefits without enough consideration of the downsides.

Chief among them is that AR, in whatever form, can be dangerous. When a user immerses him or herself into a reality that isn’t really there, actual reality can reap disastrous revenge.

Reports of Pokemon Go users, for example, injuring themselves or even dying thanks to being transfixed to their smartphone screens continue to roll in.

In one case, two California men recently fell of a cliff while hunting the cartoon monsters. They escaped serious injury, but in another incident a teenager in Mexico was shot to death after breaking into a house in search of Pokemon.

Audio AR poses similar dangers. It’s easy to imagine users who have turned down traffic noises in favour of some other portion of the auditory spectrum, for example, routinely getting hit by cars.

It’s potentially worse than simply wearing regular, non-AR earphones and listening to music, which is a passive activity that still allows the person to focus on external stimuli with their other senses. Your ears may be occupied, but your eyes are still effectively peeled for oncoming hazards.

Audio AR, however, could distract the brain and therefore the other senses. You may see a car coming, but if your brain is focusing on listening to a faraway conversation, it may not process and implement the necessary reaction in time.

Audio proponents also envision it as a two-way medium. Doppler Labs’ chief executive Noah Kraft recently told New Scientist magazine that, just as Microsoft put a computer on every desk, his company’s goal is to “put a computer in every ear.” That means the wearer would be able to have conversations with the earphones and issue commands verbally.

Germany’s Bragi, which is developing its own “smart earphones” called Dash, expects that computational ability to obviate the need for users to input directions on their smartphones, much like how some people currently use Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa.

The problem there isn’t one of physical danger, but rather one of simple manners and etiquette. While Siri and Alexa have their use cases, especially in the home, people are generally reluctant to use them in public. A recent study found that 98 per cent of iPhone users have used Siri, but just 3 per cent do so when there are other people around.

It’s easy to understand why. Despite the occasional obnoxious individual on public transit who loudly blabs their most intimate details while on the phone, most people tend to stay quiet among strangers out of consideration for them.

There’s also the privacy thing – few people want others to know what they’re searching for on the web, or what they’re doing on their phone, which is why they’re even less likely to make verbal requests of their devices in public.

Like visual AR, augmented audio reality is an intriguing technology that is obviously ready for prime time. But whether or not anyone actually wants to listen to it is an open question.

Peter Nowak is a veteran technology writer and the author of Humans 3.0: The Upgrading of the Species.

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