In Silicon Valley, failure is so familiar that it's often worn as a badge of honour, but in the case of augmented reality earbud startup Doppler Labs, which just announced it's shutting down, there's a particularly strong sense of frustration. "To be totally honest it's bittersweet," Noah Kraft, Doppler CEO tells me. "The fact it's ending is awful, but there really is a feeling here that we helped start a movement. And it sucks we're not going to be the ones who carry the torch all the way."
Case in point, during our conversation he links me to a tweet, sent by co-founder Fritz Lanman just a few days ago, showing a striking similarity between a promo shot of the company's Here One earbuds and the one Google used for its Pixel Buds. "We saw that and our designers and engineers were like, come on," says Noah. "There's irony in that, right?"
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Noah doesn't appear to be accusing Google of lifting Doppler's idea outright, but it perfectly illustrates the point: being a hardware startup is tough – tougher than ever, maybe – and all the tenacity in the world isn't enough in the face of a multi-hundred-billion dollar company. In an effort to save Doppler from running dry of capital, Noah and other executives met with all the 'Big Five' ("and several others") in a hope to sell the company. "We were constantly told, 'Your vision is brilliant, we think your team is awesome, your tech is really cool. By the way, we're really big and we can probably do this for ourselves with about 100 million dollars, so we don't buy companies – especially hardware companies anymore – just to get a head start.'
"The irony was that we'd walk out of meetings and be like, tell us our stuff sucks, it's less depressing. Don't tell us you think it's awesome."
Innovation is tough, especially when your background isn't in tech (prior to Doppler, Noah was a movie producer for titles including the Miles Teller-starring Bleed For This). Had he known the odds going in, Noah says, he probably would have stayed clear of the ring. "You look at Snapchat, which is a software company… It's really tough to set a standard now because the big companies are so big. We didn't get everything right, but even if we did, it would still have been a crapshoot."
Here Two was going to be one step closer to the true in-ear computer
And if fate had played a different hand? Doppler was already working on the Here Two, its follow-up that would have been much closer to its vision of building the bionic ear. Earlier this year Doppler assembled a crack squad to prepare for new legislation that would allow hearing aids to be sold over the counter. It also worked closely with Senator Elizabeth Warren and other members of Congress to get the bill passed, but sadly it wasn't a catalyst to attracting more capital, as Noah thought it might have been. If it were, the Here Two would have been focused more on hearing health.
"It was going to be one step closer to the true in-ear computer, but we were going to market it as the first over-the-counter hearing aid," says Noah, who describes it having eight to ten hours of battery life when used for hearing functions and six to eight hours with streaming music (much more than the Here One shipped with). "It would be 95% voice controlled, so we were trying to move fully away from the app unless you really needed it, so you could talk to the buds and the buds could talk to you."
Translation would have been a part of it too, says Noah, who showed me an early-stage demo of this feature several months ago. While rough round the edges at the time, the tech worked: I held a short conversation with someone who was speaking in Spanish, while all of the processing was being done on the earbuds themselves. Google's Pixel Buds won't be able to do the same without a paired smartphone; Bragi's translation can't currently function independently either.
"[The Here Two] was going to be very similar to Here One except we tweaked the design just slightly to make it a little more ergonomic," says Noah. "The case was going to be half as small because of the battery optimisation. So it was Here One done right and much closer to the all-day vision, with a lot more smart notifications, smart systems, and things like translation. If you wanted to buy it as a hearing aid alternative, you could, and we could really serve that community as well as people who want to use it as a multi purpose computing platform."
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Sadly, we'll never see it. Instead Noah and his colleagues will spend the next ten days maximizing the value of the assets that remain, including 38 filed patents and a lot of other IP, hardware design and piles of code. Then Noah says he needs to take a break, take stock of the situation and decide what to do next – but it probably won't be tech.
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I ask him if there's one thing that he wishes he'd done differently: there isn't. "There's a hundred things," he says, but none of them stand out as the magic bullet that could have saved all this. "We were just frankly being a bit naive. Like, of course we can take on Apple and beat the AirPods to market. And we can build hardware, and we can build this in-ear computer. It came from that deep belief." But being bullish was also what got Doppler in the public eye, and it'd be hard to accuse the company of not going all-out. After all, not many startups have helped get a law passed, but that's part of Doppler's legacy.
"We just hope we made a little bit of an impact, and helped people who are hard of hearing feel a little more comfortable. And I hope five years from now I can put something in my ears and go, yup, we didn't build it but this was what we were trying to do."