Companies have been gunning to make the best pair of wireless earbuds for a few years now, and now some of them have moved on to trying to become the smartest. Doppler Labs is working on earbuds that augment the sounds of the world around you, while Apple is clearly hoping to bring Siri to your ear with AirPods. The idea of a discreet, in-ear technology that connects you to the internet’s endless well of information is clearly a powerful one.
Of course, bigger, bulkier headphones would give you the room to do more without so many sacrifices. It’s like working with a full canvas versus trying to paint a masterpiece on the back of a sticky note. With that in mind, it’s no surprise that a new company called Stages is pulling back the curtain on a pair of over the-ear headphones that blend a few of the most exciting ideas about aural augmented reality.
The headphones, called The Hero, are over-the-ear cans that let you do some basic digital trickery with the audio, like customizing the sound and creating listening profiles. The headphones also have a microphone array that not only helps with noise cancellation, but drives the ability to selectively hear noise from the world around you. It can let in all outside audio, and it can also let you select the direction you want to hear that audio from. An accelerometer and gyroscope will keep that noise in place as you spin your head around, too.
But the really fantastic idea that Stages has cooked up goes one step deeper. The company claims that the headphones can be trained to recognize keywords and, eventually, voices — the benefit being that if the headphones pick up a familiar word or speech pattern, they can automatically flip on the ambient noise so that you don’t miss the conversation. If someone behind you says “excuse me,” or your name, the headphones will just activate the audio passthrough, therefore reducing the chance that you don’t realize someone is speaking to you.
Letting in outside audio isn’t a new idea — it’s the foundation that Doppler Labs’ Here One earbuds are built on, and it’s a feature that’s included in the Bragi Dash and some of its competition. And at some point, pulling your headphones down around your neck to hear someone or something isn’t actually an inconvenience. But it’s the situations where you don’t realize that someone is speaking to you where this idea could be useful. (VR, anyone?)
Stages claims to have taken advantage of the larger canvas to bring this idea of ambient noise technology to the next level. The company is also short on specifics right now — we don’t know things like pricing or battery life, two pretty big omissions. We’ll find out how close the company gets to those claims, what sorts of problems they might encounter, and how useful this idea is in the first place, when Stages shows off The Hero at CES next month.