Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Ubiquitous audio: “a heads-up display for your ears”

In a recent article, Peter Drescher argues that stereo cellphone headsets will make possible interactive communication experiences on the go.

I’m looking at wireless stereo headsets, and thinking that as they become more comfortable, more useful, more powerful, more commonplace, and more stylish, there will be fewer and fewer reasons to ever take them off. Eventually, you’ll just stick them in your ears and forget about ‘em. They will become like acoustic contact lenses, or a heads-up display for your ears. They’ll let you access and control a virtual audio reality that streams in from wireless networks all around you and is mixed with voice data from your phone and from everybody’s phone. And although the ubiquitous audio network I’m describing does not yet exist, you can actually listen to what it might sound like today.

It’s completely analogous to being in a recording studio, isolated by big headphones, auditioning multiple tracks, and talking to the control room via live mic. I remember my first time in a real studio: I put on the cans and was astounded by the sense of space, the detailed audio field, and the sound of my own voice—in my head, through the mixing board. Now imagine that feeling as a mobile experience, but instead of talking to the engineer on the other side of the glass, you’re walking down Broadway, talking to someone on the other side of the world.

In response, Tim O’Reilly points out that stereo headsets will be the first components of mainstream wearable computing.

I’m sure that at first, when only a few people are living in the mobile “heads up” auditory network, they will be quite “annoying” in public spaces, but eventually, I imagine we'll figure out how to deal with that. There's a lot that's compelling in this vision. I've always imagined heads-up visual displays being one of the harbingers of the era of wearable computing, but Peter makes a pretty compelling case that it’s in audio that we’re going to see the first signs of ubiquitous wearable computing.

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