Sony's newly formed R&D outfit, Future Lab, is here at SXSW to show off its first concept prototype: a pair of headphones worn around the neck that direct audio upwards so only you can hear it. Codenamed Concept N, the Bluetooth device takes the design of those wacky-looking neck-worn headphones and packs in multi-directional speakers so you can listen to music without buds or over-the-ear pads.
Sony, which became an industry giant thanks in part to its pioneering audio technology, is trying to reimagine headphones for a world with too many sounds. The idea behind N is to create a system for listening while trying to retain background noise for when you're wandering about outside or riding your bike. The device also comes with an accompanying pair of cone-shaped ear pieces that communicate with the neckband, in the event you want a more traditional headphone-like experience. The buds, with holes punched through the middle, don't block outside noises, so you're still able to, say, hold a conversation while listening to music.
N also comes equipped with voice control and a camera, and Sony programmed it to respond to commands with the name "Arc." In a way, it resembles a toned-down version of Google Glass that, instead of being plastered to your face, gets worn like a necklace. It's less obtrusive than Google's wearable, but still not quite fashion-forward enough not to turn heads.
In my experience with N, audio was surprisingly clear when pumped through the speakers. At the same time, the directional sound was just low enough to blend in with the background sounds when someone else wore the device. The voice control, however, failed to function properly in the moderately noisy Future Lab tent and the Sony representative was forced to issue the command four or five times to take a photo.
N is a finely designed piece of technology and looks and feels like a polished product ready to be sold. Unfortunately, Sony's Future Lab stresses the term prototype, so the company won't share any details whatsoever on whether N will become a consumer product at some point. Yet it's hard not to imagine other companies like LG, which already makes a similar-looking audio device called the Tone Infinim, adopting the idea into future products before Sony gets something on the market.