When Headphones Get Smart
Editor's Note: At the end of this month I'll be attending T.H.E. Show Newport, and on Saturday, May 31 at 1PM, I'll be moderating a panel discussion titled, "When Headphones Get Smart: The Future of Active Headphones." On the Panel will be: Todd Welti of Harman International who does research on headphone development; Geir Skaaden, Senior Vice President of Corporate Business Development, Digital Content & Media Solutions at DTS who has responsibilities for the Headphone:X project; and Douglas Kihm, CEO and founder of STREAMZ LLC, who is about to produce a stand-alone streaming headphone. This article is sort of my first stab at getting my head around the subject prior to the show. I look forward to your comments here to help flesh out the subject, and hope you'll come and participate in the discussion if you're at the show.
The Coming of Smart Headphones
It seems inevitable at this point, headphones are going to get much, much smarter in the near future. Apple has recently made news with patents for biometric sensors in headphones that, with the aid of the appropriate app, will help you monitor your exercise program and fitness. They've also patented the ability to steer the pick-up pattern of a phased array of microphones on the cable of your ear-bud for better voice reception using an accelerometer in the buds. The wildly successful Dash Kickstarter campaign raised $3 million over their $260,000 goal for a wireless Bluetooth, biometric sensing, in-ear head-set. GN, Danish parent company of Jabra, is introducing their IntelligentHeadset with 3D audio claiming to be able to give sonic prompts from various points in space around your headfor example, you can play ZombieX and kill invisible zombies by looking in the direction of their screams and pushing the shoot button. You've seen all the streaming speakers out there, well, why not a streaming headphone that operates much the same way? STREAMZ headphones are set to launch this year and promise access to media without the need for a player. All the above, of course, ignores the rash of activity around virtual reality head-sets (Facebook buys Oculus; Sony's Project Morpheus; Apple patents head-mounted display; Google Glass, of course; even Samsung is getting into it), and the really far out brain wave sensing headsets.
Like everything, I see both good and bad in this trend. All the fitness tracking stuff could be pretty cool for those with an athletic bent. Getting fit can be a heck of a chore especially when progress is slow. Headphones with sensors and cool apps would be able to give you a much better picture of where you're at and where you're going than a bathroom scale. Smart-head tracking would allow for cool things like apps for blind people that let them know what they're looking at. Of course, I'm exited about head-tracking for its ability to allow for changing HRTF (head related transfer function) cues in virtual surround systems like DTS Headphone:X to improve the immersiveness of the experience.
Will Complexity Lead to Incompatibility?
The downside, it seems to me, is that there's obviously no standardization with these systems. Will the apps that receive data from Apple's new biometric sensing ear-buds be compatible with the Dash headphones? I seriously doubt it. Will STREAMZ headphones allow me to access streaming services with existing log-ins? Sonos doesn't let me log into TuneIn radio with my existing account info...and they've been doing this for quite a while.
For a long time headphone enthusiasts have taken for granted that their headphones are almost always compatible with anything that had a headphone jack. At some point in the near future we may be forced into certain models of headphones depending on what set of apps and features one desires. Manufacturers just love to create feature rich products that are interoperable only with product from that brand. (*cough* Apple *cough*)
Will Regular Headphones Become Obsolete?
Heck, let's take it a step farther: Will smartphones eventually give up the wired headphone jack when most folks are walking around with Bluetooth headsets. Speakers don't move much, but everyone wants wireless speakers; we move our head around all the time, a wireless headphone is far more functionally convenient than a wireless speaker. For most people, getting rid of the wire on their headphones would be a very good thing. In the long run, that means the headphone jack is likely to disappear.
As I was writing this article, I had a very funny thought: In a decade or two, all headphones may be wireless, except for that cute little group of audiophiles who manage to provide just enough demand to sustain a boutique market for wired headphones...turntables...tape decks...and other arcane devices.
"The Sky is Falling!"...Not
Look, I'm really not trying to be sensationalistic here, I'm just interested in starting a dialog and a little thinking on the subject. Headphones are about to go through some huge changes, and I think we should be talking about those changes because our (the headphone enthusiast community) dialog, in part, will be input for those who are thinking about developing future headphone products. In a world partly run on the back of social media, it's your well considered opinion that might well make it under the eyes of headphone innovatorsthis is InnerFidelity after all, lots of those engineers read these pages.
Just a good thing to think about, I think. Lemme know what you think in the comments.
Editor's Note: InnerFidelity will be going through some site maintenance this weekend and comments on the site will be disabled most of the weekend. So, if you've got thoughts at the ready, go for it. But this subject is worthy of a little rumination, I'd love to hear what you think after a weekend of noodling over it.