"It's been a whirlwind. It's been a huge year for the company. It's been surreal." Those are the words of Noah Kraft, CEO of Doppler Labs, as he looks back at his company's rise from Kickstarter campaign success story to winning major awards at Cannes Lions 2016 and bringing his Here Active Listening earbuds that let you control real world audio, to Coachella this year.
"We were elated that Here Active Listening captured this zeitgeist we just never expected," Kraft said. "We knew we were onto something. One of the reasons we've achieved what we have is that we've always had a clear vision for the company. We want to be the company that puts the computer in the ear. Having that kind of clear direction helps us to move so quickly throughout the year."
Essential reading: Here Active Listening review
Kraft talked glowingly about the community that it has built around Here, thanks to the Kickstarter campaign and the value that it has brought to the building and design process.
"One of the greatest things about putting together this group we call Here Pioneers is that we have 10,000 people giving us feedback," Kraft told us. "Within that we have about a self selected group of 300 people that every day wrote us a diary entry on how they were using Here. If you think about that over the course of a month, you learn so much. It's one thing to create tech in vacuum, it's another to create tech in a community."
"The original plan was to make 10,000 units for Here Active Listening, but because of the Coachella partnership, we ended up with more. The point was to get the product in the world and really get it tested in the real world. With Here Active Listening, we could have made millions of units, if not hundreds of thousands. We just decided to constrain it. Our thesis was, when we go mass, we wanted to put a stake in the ground."
Meet Here One
Which leads us to Here One, the successor to the Active Listening earbuds that launch later this year and are now available to pre-order. Here One sees the company evolve its smart listening and noise filtering technologies while adding new features. One is layered listening which gives you additional content to your ears such as museum guides and director's commentary in a film all without getting in the way of the actual experience. Crucially for some, it's now adding the ability to stream music. Unsurprisingly, Kraft says that the team learnt a ton from building the first pair including that Coachella experience.
About 70% of people used the noise filtering more than anything else
"Just having thousands of units out on the field at the same time helped massively," Kraft said. "We got to learn a lot of things like whether people liked a certain colour because the aesthetics are a big part of this product. People wanted more of the noise filtering. We really doubled down on the noise filtering. About 70% of people used the noise filtering more than anything else. We pitched this as a live music optimisation device, but people were really interested in removing noise from their lives. We worked on things like wind. So now we have multiple mics in your ear, which allows us to work on things like shielding."
The addition of audio streaming will be music to the ears of fans of the first Here device and Kraft explained that its inclusion didn't mean a drastic change in the physical design, but instead involved a "drastic design in the hardware."
1,000 Here Active Listening earbuds were made for Coachella
"It has definitely evolved with the new aesthetics to make it even more premium. It's actually only grown a single millimetre. Now instead of the single mic/processor system in the Here, we now have multiple processors and multiple mics. We are truly putting a computer in your ear.
"For us, the most challenging thing is the real world audio augmentation. With the Here One we had to make sure there was zero latency and the natural acoustics, that was the hardest thing we had to. We evolved that to adaptive filtering. That was a huge jump because we were tackling signal processing challenges that the industry have been trying to accomplish for decades."
Don't call Here a hearable
Samsung recently announced the Gear IconX wireless earbuds
At Wareable we regard Here along with the likes of the Bragi Dash as the poster child for hearables. Doppler Labs look at things a little differently.
"We don't like the term hearables," Kraft said. "There's a thousand Kickstarter companies coming out with the craziest ideas with nothing to back them up. What that does is damages the credibility of the space.
"We don't look at the likes of Bragi and Samsung in our category. They are making wireless headphones and they are going to be a commodity within the next twelve months. Everyone will have a wireless earphone. We want to be closer to the iPhone in terms of innovation than the headphone.
"The magic comes from the non-streaming capabilities and that's where we focus on these hearing enhancement features. The dynamic filtering, bringing in the adaptive filtering, personal listening. We think they have usefulness outside of the couple of hours you'll be listening to streaming music. We are looking at how we can really take this away from a single function device and make this in-ear computer with many different features and functions."
Evolving the software
Every two weeks or even every day there'll be a software update. That's one of things we pride ourselves on
Building the hardware is of course just one piece of the puzzle and that's something Kraft agrees on revealing that as his team has grown, so has the number of software engineers that are now on board to continuously improve the experience. "The best analogy is Telsa," Kraft said. "We are going to ship a hardware product but every two weeks or even every day there'll be a software update. That's one of things we pride ourselves on. We hold our standard to a major tech company like Apple and Google. We are a startup, but we don't consider ourselves small."
That's a very bold claim and one we will be holding the company to. But the early signs look promising. One of the new software updates Doppler Labs' CEO is most proud of is the adaptive filtering.
"When you compare it to what we had in Here Active Listening, it's night and day," he said. "The first model had the technology to take certain frequencies and then remove them. Taking out an entire frequency spectrum is crude. It's not very elegant and there's a lot of collateral damage.
"What the adaptive filtering does is actually listens to the world. We've trained the algorithm we've developed to recognise the difference between different sounds and target remove them. So if there's a siren in your environment and someone is speaking to you, you can remove the siren or quieten it without adjusting the human voice. It's a big evolution from where we were before."
The idea of creating a more personal experience starts with the new listening profiles. "What we've done is actually created an ongoing process where we really learn about your ear," Kraft explained.
"One of the biggest pieces of feedback we got on Here was that we had this arbitrary zero, that frankly didn't work for everyone. We decided we are going to learn what's right for your left ear and what's right for your right ear. What'll happen is my restaurant mode and your restaurant mode will be different. The way the system is smart is that it knows the individual ears and will adjust. The idea is that you never have to account for the differences."
Here One is also adding smart assistant support, which gives users control of Siri and Google Now. While that's not new to the world of headphones or hearables, the concept of building a device that learns and adapts to habits and behaviours is an idea we are seeing companies beginning to explore. Kraft doesn't believe it's quite there yet, though. "We always plan to be on the cutting edge," he says. "Right now, we want to get the baseline of the system really working before we explore things like that."
What is very evident is that Kraft and Doppler Labs truly believes its Here software and hardware remains unique and that it will continue to be at the forefront of smartening the ears.
"I don't believe that there is any in-ear product that has the same computational power," Kraft said. "The ears are on 24/7, we believe it will be the future. We use the term on body computing and we think the ear is going to be the central point of this. We want to be the poster child for on body computing and we believe that's going to happen."
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