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Ambitious augmented reality earbud startup Doppler Labs shuts down

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Goodbye, Here One

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Doppler Labs, the company behind Here One smart earbuds, has announced that it’s shutting down all operations today, as reported by Wired.

Founded in 2013, Doppler Labs debuted the prototype of its Here Active Listening System two years later in 2015. The battery-powered earbuds, according to Doppler Labs founder and CEO Noah Kraft, were built to enhance sound in the world around you. By using the accompanying app, users could, in theory, apply any manner of EQ settings that did everything from reduce overwhelming bass frequencies at a concert to dim the midrange chatter of co-workers while in an office. Kraft’s vision for Doppler’s future was an compelling idea — "we want to put a computer, speaker, and mic in everyone's ear” — but the Here Active Listening System was met with mixed reviews.

In 2016, the company announced a new version of the earbuds, now called Here One. Dubbed “augmented reality earbuds,” this model allowed for streaming audio via Bluetooth, combined with the sound-enhancement tools seen in the Here Active Listening System. It seemed to offer the best of both worlds: a way to not only blend music or content playing in-ear with ambient noise, but the ability to adjust that ambient noise as well.

Unfortunately, in bringing Here One to market the company was met with a raft of problems. According to Wired, a manufacturer change pushed production delivery from the fall 2016 to February 2017. There was also bad news on the battery front. The company hoped to offer 4.5 hours of battery life using augmented hearing and three hours of music streaming, but the unit’s Bluetooth chip wound up diminishing those expectations.

Instead, the Here One could only deliver about three hours of augmented hearing, and less than two with audio streaming. The Verge’s review of the Here One earlier this year docked points for this battery issue, and also noted other functionality problems like an unstable Bluetooth connection and latency with certain audio filters.

In the meantime, some of the biggest companies in the world have already come to market with custom Bluetooth solutions for their own platforms. Increasingly, closed-loop ecosystems are becoming the new normal for brands, making it even harder for new entries to the market. There are Apple’s AirPods, which have fast pairing and a rock-solid Bluetooth connection, and Google’s Pixel Buds, which have real-time translation built in, a feature Doppler said it wanted to integrate years ago.

"I think we were a little naive about how fast we could run compared to these companies,” Kraft said in a statement to The Verge. “When we started this, there wasn't this behemoth — the big companies were big, but they were not like they are today."

Wired notes that Doppler Labs’ closing is surprising. The company spent a chunk of 2017 helping push the hearing-health market (an obvious application for an earbud with EQ capabilities) toward a more over-the-counter model, and was also moving forward on Here One’s successor Here Two. But, it needed capital to continue, and over the past months, took “hundreds of meetings” to try and secure the funds to move forward. Doppler had already raised $50 million as of 2016, and were in the precarious position of being an overfunded startup without enough sales to convince any further cash infusions.

Doppler also explored selling the company at a drastically lower valuation, looking for options that would soften the blow for employees. Wired says it received two offers from “hardware giants,” but neither carried enough weight, and Doppler turned them down. Last Wednesday, a week before the company would officially close, Kraft told the staff that “if anyone had been hiding a billionaire relative with cash to burn, now would be a good time to introduce them.”

In retrospect, Kraft says Doppler’s downfall was becoming a hardware business. “There's nothing else to talk about. We shouldn't have done that," he tells Wired. He also laments the difficulties in being a small company with a big vision. "Facebook hired 1,000 people to deal with 'fake news stuff' within a month,” he tells The Verge. “That's... you can't compete with that, at this level. I don't know that it will smother innovation, but I can tell you, I would think twice before starting a company again."

As of today, visitors to the Here One website will see a letter from the company explaining their decision to cease operations. As a farewell, it’s offering its final effort, an app to aid those with hearing loss called Here Plus, for free in Apple’s App Store. Doppler’s original vision of "a computer, speaker, and mic in everyone's ear” will probably happen, but it won’t be the one to carry it out.