Sony is back with another hearable - the Xperia Ear Open Style Concept. As the name suggests this isn't a real product yet but I took a look at design and working prototypes at a pre-MWC event.
It looks nothing like the single Xperia Ear earbud we tested last year. Instead this is a pair of wireless stereo earphones which use 'open-ear' technology developed by Sony's Future Lab program last year. All the tech sits in a module behind the ear and in your ear, two spatial acoustic conductors and drivers transmit sounds to your ear canal.
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This design's big benefit is that it also lets the sounds of the world around you in - something Doppler Labs has been trying to do with microphones and algorithms on the Here One.
I actually tried this Sony Future Lab tech as the Sony N earpiece and neckband for the first time at SXSW last year. It takes some getting used to as when you listen to music, you think that everyone around you can hear it - because you can hear them.
Of course, this set up is leakier than regular earbuds but when I tried the working prototype (which is I wasn't allowed to photograph) in the hubbub of a Sony press event, the people around me couldn't hear the tunes.
The working prototype is bulkier than the design prototype (above) but Sony reps were keen to stress this won't be what the final product is like. And the working model was very light.
Sound quality was pretty good, though I'm not sure I'd always want the real world interrupting music. For interacting with assistants, though, this 'ambient experience' makes a lot of sense.
As you'd expect, the Open Style Concept will work with Xperia Agent and Google Assistant if and when it becomes a real product. Sony also told us that the regular Xperia Ear will be getting an upgrade soon with more voices available for its Agent assistant - right now there's only one. Plus it will get more functionality with third party apps and services which was always promised.
It's good to see Sony recognise that people want two smart earbuds that also do music - a possible dealbreaker with last year's Xperia Ear. And this line of R&D is very promising for ambient computing devices that keep us linked to reality. Plus Sony reckons it'll be a good set up for physical activities like running that need you to know what's going on in your surroundings.
Sony told us that its aim here is to see what the reception to this product is - from the press and the internet. So if you're interested in sticking the tech behind your ear rather than sticking out the sides or down your face AirPods-style, make some noise so Sony knows it.