Sony is at SXSW 2016 with a somewhat wacky wearable - specifically, its N concept neckband and earbuds from the newly unveiled Future Lab Program. Like the Xperia Ear, which we saw at MWC, N focuses on audio interfaces, an area Sony is really putting serious resources into.
The form factor itself isn't new - think of the LG Tone headsets. The current prototype looks like a real product - a sleek, sturdy neckband that uses open speakers, has a built-in camera and responds to voice commands, so the earbuds are actually optional.
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In practice, though, it's more likely you'll be interested in the "private" N experience for music which requires Future Lab's open ear earphones. The driver sits behind the ear and an acoustic conduit transfers the sound to your ears.
Sony N: A hidden, clever camera
We didn't get to try out the voice commands of the neckband ourselves but we did see them in action on Sony's demonstrators. The command is "Listen up, Arc" and there's no tapping buttons or swiping on the device itself, it's all voice and hands-free. Then simply say something like "Take a picture" to open the lens of the camera built into the right hand edge of the neckband. The big advantage here is that, unlike Google Glass, people around you won't constantly feel that they are being recorded - because they aren't.
There's also motion sensors and GPS onboard the N concept, these detect whether you are walking or say, cycling with your head down towards your bike. This then tells the camera in which angle to point the lens to automatically get the right images. Clever. The behaviour tracking is also designed to deliver contextual info to the user.
Sony N: Two options for audio
What we did get to try briefly was listening to music via the open ear buds. The idea is that they allow you to both listen to music and audio info and the outside world - in fact, they're so light that at first they don't feel like they fit correctly. I found myself wanting more weight to be sure they were in but I'm sure I'd get used to it.
They're wired to the main device but small, discreet and comfortable. With Sony's Clear Phase and XLOUD audio signal processing technologies onboard, sound quality seemed decent considering the form factor but we were in a very loud demo tent so it's way to early to judge.
We also tried listening to music with just the neckband - this uses what Sony calls Virtualphones Technology (VPT) and will provide audio information too. It is kind of like a localised speaker but there's an element of leaky headphones to it so we're not sure how much we'd use it.
Sony N: Voice assistance
Future Lab's N concept uses four microphones, in the neckband, which it says reduces noise and increases the accuracy of speech recognition. Again, we didn't test this but the devices picked up the demonstrators' commands instantly.
We're not sure if this is the same voice assistant (here local and cloud based) as the Xperia Agent we tried with the Xperia Ear hearable at MWC but Naoya Okamoto, general manger and engineer within the System R&D Group, confirmed that the same audio, speech recognition and virtual assistance technologies are used between the R&D teams at Future Lab and other Sony teams.
That said, this voice assistant is described as your own personal radio DJ which will deliver contextual info in a fun, upbeat way which alters slightly from what we heard about Agent. Here features include weather reports, news tailored to your interests, your schedule and info on nearby restaurants and events. Some of those will be available on Xperia Ear when it launches this summer, others are new.
Read this: Inside Sony's bold plans for its Agent voice assistant
"We share our expertise, audio, speech recognition, across teams at Sony," Okamoto told us. "This concept's hands free audio interface is aimed at active people but we are not limiting ourselves to one set of people. That's why we decided to bring it here to SXSW.
"We were looking for ways to provide people with information without restricting them to looking at a screen, we have some other projects at very early stages but this wearable is one that is more mature. We managed to engineer the open ear earphones to get great sound quality and the camera is good for privacy as it means the people around the N wearer feel comfortable too."
Sony N: What's next?
Future Lab says N is very much a concept for now and it has been brought to SXSW to gauge the interest of early adopters.
Our first impressions? We love the open ear earphones, the sneaky camera and the promised voice assistance (if it works). As ever, the design of the neckband itself would have to be smaller or a slightly different form factor to really pique our interest but we're interested enough to follow N's progress.
This summer, Future Lab will be rolling out a pilot program of fully working hardware and will refine the prototype - it will also be sending out development kits to get devs working on apps for its audio interface. We'll keep you posted as N develops into a viable wearable device.
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