Wireless earbuds are one of those futuristic ideas that can't seem to cross over the consumer technology horizon. Bragi had a very successful Kickstarter last year for its Dash earbuds, which it showed off at CES alongside prototypes from FreeWavz and HearNotes, but has so far only shipped developer kits. Earin, Skybuds, T-Rex, and Truebuds are just a few of the many other companies also trying to crowdfund the dream of wireless earbuds, but most (if not all) of those companies haven't shipped — or even produced a working version of — their product.
Now another company called Elbee is joining the fray with a Kickstarter campaign that launched today. And in an increasingly crowded field, Elbee wants to solve one of the biggest concerns about wireless earbuds: losing them. Elbee's app knows when the earbuds are in or out of Bluetooth range, and can therefore tell you their last known location and point you in the right direction. The app will even be able to alert you if you've somehow left your home without them. All of these should be chief concerns for people spending a couple hundred dollars on two relatively tiny earbuds — concerns that Elbee is really the first company to directly address.
Otherwise, Elbee's earbuds are somewhat similar to the Dash in their design, and they also include voice and motion controls. The company isn't focusing on flashy features like fitness tracking, and instead the Elbee earbuds are more utilitarian, designed specifically for hands-free controls and Bluetooth music streaming. This helps the small company keep the price competitive — Elbee earbuds are being offered for $149, $169, and $189 on the company's Kickstarter page, and will eventually retail for $269.
Each Elbee earbud is a small, dark gray rhombus on one side, with touch-sensitive strips for simple tap and swipe controls, an indicator light, and a noise-cancelation microphone. On the other side are form-fitting earpieces, and a capacitive sensor that turns each earbud off when you take it out of your ear to help save battery life. (The company says the earbuds will last for about three straight hours of playback, and can be recharged three times in their portable carrying case.)
Where Elbee will be able to distinguish itself, according to CEO Konrad Holubek, is with the hands-free controls. Like with the Dash, a mix of voice controls and slight head nods will let you access Siri or Google Now, skip from song to song in Spotify, make calls or send text messages, or do whatever developers might come up if and when they get their hands on Elbee's open SDK. I got to demo some of these controls — on what was essentially just a circuit board, to be clear — and in these early days they all worked really well.
When I finally do have a pair of wireless earbuds, I could see myself using functionality like this from time to time. But I do have a hard time believing that these kinds of hands-free controls will stop me from pulling my phone out of my pocket, which is one of Elbee's big selling points. "We are tired of constantly grabbing our phone throughout the day," Holubek says in the company's Kickstarter video, adding that we find ourselves "interacting with apps that are often time consuming to find and to use." It's the same argument companies have used to sell smartwatches, but even with those it's not clear that this is a major problem people want solved. When it comes to wireless earbuds, people will probably care more about a product that looks good, sounds good, and is simple to use.
If Elbee solves these needs, it won't be any time soon. The company isn't going to ship the earbuds until the end of 2016, so the success of Elbee's Kickstarter will hinge on finding patient backers. But with other wireless earbud startups breaking delivery promises on a seemingly monthly basis, maybe preparing yourself for a long wait is the only rational approach.