Personal and environmental audio – hear hear!

Just before Christmas, a friend brought me a new pair of headphones back from the US. I still haven’t quite decided yet whether they are the future of personal audio or just a step in the right direction, but I am finding them a bit of a revelation.

The headphones are the AfterShokz Sportz M2, which are relatively cheap, bone conduction headphones. Bone conduction means that instead of the headphones sending sound into your ear canal (like in-ear or full size headphones), they sit against the bones of your skull and send vibrations along them to your inner ear. The main advantage is that while listening to audio from these headphones, you can still hear all the environmental sound around you. The main disadvantage is that, of course, you can still hear all the environmental sound around you.

Clearly, this is not desirable for an audiophile. Obviously, you don’t get these sorts of headphones for their audio quality, and while I find them perfectly decent for listening to music or podcasts, the bass is not as good as typical headphones either. That said, if I want to hear the sound better, I can pop a finger in my ear to block out external noise. Sometimes I use the headphones for telephone calls on my mobile when traveling on the tram, and it probably looks a little odd to the other travelers that I am wearing headphones and putting my finger to my ear, but it is very effective.

For the first week or so that I was wearing them, I had strange sensations in my head, very much like when I first get new frames for my glasses. They push on my head in a way that I’m not used to, and it takes a little bit to get used to. The fact that I can hear music playing in my “ears” and yet hear everything around me was also initially a bit surreal – a bit like I was in a movie with a soundtrack – but the strangeness here diminished very quickly and now it is just a delight.

While they are marketed to cyclists or people who need to be able to hear environmental sound for safety reason (like, well, pedestrians crossing roads, so almost everyone I guess), it’s not the safety angle that really enthuses me. I am delighted by being able to fully participate in the world around me while concurrently having access to digital audio. When the announcer at a train station explains that a train is going to be cancelled, I still hear it. When a barista calls out that my coffee is ready, I still hear it. When my wife asks me a question while I’m doing something on the computer, I still hear it.

A couple of years ago, I yearned for this sort of experience:

For example, if I want to watch a TV program on my laptop, while my wife watches some video on the iPod on the couch next to me, we are going to interfere with each other, making it difficult for either of us to listen to our shows.

Being able to engage with people in my physical environment and yet access audio content without interfering with others is very liberating. I had hoped that highly directional speakers were the solution, but bone conduction headphones are a possible alternative.

Initially I had tried headphones that sat in only one ear, leaving the other one free. They were also very light and comfortable. One issue was that these were Bluetooth headphones and had trouble staying paired with several of the devices I had. However, and more importantly, I looked a bit like a real estate agent when I wore them, and was extremely self-conscious. Even trying to go overboard and wear them constantly for a month wasn’t enough to rid me of the sense of embarrassment I felt. Additionally, others would make a similar association and always seemed to assume that I must be on a phone call. If I did interact with others, I always had to explain first that I wasn’t on a call. What should’ve been a highly convenient solution turned out to be quite inconvenient.

The AfterShokz have none of these issues. I did try coupling them with a Bluetooth adaptor, but it had similar Bluetooth pairing issues. I see that AfterShokz have since released headphones with Bluetooth built in, but I haven’t tested these.

One potential new issue with the AfterShokz that I should discuss relates to the ability for others to hear what I’m listening to – this had been mentioned by some other online reviewers. While at higher volumes, others can hear sounds coming from the headphones (although this is not unique to AfterShokz’ headphones), at lower volumes it is actually very private. In any case, I’ve got a niggling sense of a higher risk of damage to my inner ear from listening to music at higher volumes: bone conduction headphones surely need to send sound-waves at higher energy levels than normal headphones because the signal probably attenuates more through bone than through air, and this is coupled with the fact that it needs to be operated at higher levels in order to be heard over background noise that would be otherwise blocked out by normal headphones. So, I try to set it at as low a volume as I can get away with, and block my ear with my finger if I need to hear better. In quiet environments, it’s not an issue.

Perhaps I am worrying about something that isn’t a problem, since I note that some medical professionals who specialise in hearing loss are advocating them. For that matter, the local group that specialises in vision loss is also promoting them. Although, I guess the long term effects of this technology are still unclear.

In any case, I find using this technology to be quite wonderful. I feel that I’ve finally found stereo headphones that aren’t anti-social. I hope if you have the chance to try it, you will also agree.

Technology Forecasting

Several years ago, I bought a book by Richard Feynman about science and the world. The following passage has stuck with me:

Now, another example of  a test of truth, so to speak, that works in the sciences that would probably work in other fields to some extent is that if something is true, really so, if you continue observations and improve the effectiveness of the observations, the effects stand out more obviously. Not less obviously. That is, if there is something really there, and you can’t see good because the glass is foggy, and you polish the glass and look clearer, then it’s more obvious that it’s there, not less.

I love this idea. It’s not just that you test a theory over time and if it hasn’t been disproven then it’s probably true, but that over time a true theory becomes more obviously true.

In forecasting technology trends, this is not necessarily a helpful thing. The more obviously true something is, the less likely it is that other people credit you with having an insight, even if it dates from when it was unclear.

Still, the converse of the idea is definitely helpful. If a theory requires constant tweaking in the face of new evidence, just to maintain the possibility of being true, it most likely isn’t.

I have no trouble coming up with crazy ideas about how technology might develop, but faced with a number of equally crazy ideas, it is difficult to know which are the ones with some merit and which are false. Happily, the above approach gives me a process to help sort them: giving them time. The ideas that are reinforced by various later developments are worth hanging on to, while those that fail to gain any supporting evidence  over time may need to be jettisoned.

Ideas that I initially supported but have been forced by time to jettison include: Java ME on the mobile, RSS news readers, ubiquitous speech recognition, mobile video calling, and the Internet fridge.

One idea that I’m proud to have hung onto was that of mobile browsing. I saw the potential back in the late 1990s when I was involved in the WAP standards, enabling mobile browsing on devices such as the Nokia 7110, even if it was wracked with problems. Several colleagues, friends and family members dismissed the idea. However, over time, mobile browsing received more evidence that it was credible, with the successes in Japan, the appearance of the Opera browser, and then Safari on the iPhone. Now, I regard Safari on the iPad to be the best web browsing experience of all my devices – PCs included.

While Feynman was a great physicist, and his advice has helped me in forecasting technology trends, there’s no guaranteed way to get it right. The last word should belong to another physicist, Niels Bohr, who is reputed to have said: prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.

Contactless Sport

The other week, I got my first contactless credit card – a Visa payWave. You’ve probably seen the ads for payWave and PayPass cards – the banks have been issuing them for a while now – and I was keen for my old card to expire so that I could get a new card with this feature.

That said, I haven’t gotten the chance to use its contactless capabilities yet, but that’s not to say I haven’t noticed anything different. The day after I added the new card to my wallet, my Myki travel card stopped working.

The problem is that both my Myki and my new payWave credit card use a wireless standard called ISO/IEC 14443 that operates at 13.56MHz. Myki uses a technology called MIFARE that complies with this standard, while payWave uses contactless EMV technology. However, while they are sisters in the technology domain, neither card pays any attention to the other when in my wallet, and they interfere when I put the wallet near the reader in a station turnstile.

One solution to this is to replace the wallet with a special RF-shielded one, like this, and place the different cards in the right spots so that interference doesn’t occur. However, while I experimented with some strategically-placed aluminium foil in my wallet, in the end all I needed to do was ensure that the EMV and MIFARE cards were distantly separated by a chunk of other plastic cards and a coin pouch (I know my wallet is chunky, but I can still fit it in my pocket!).

While this may be a first world problem, it’s still something that’s going to occur more and more as new contactless cards are added to the wallet. Today, I have just a travel card and a payment card. But in the future, I am likely to have more payment cards, plus a contactless library card, drivers licence, medicare card, health insurance card, auto club membership card, frequent flyer card, etc. It won’t be possible to distantly separate all these cards from each other, and they won’t play as nicely with each other as I would like.

One of the great advantages of contactless is that it’s so convenient. For example, I don’t need to take my Myki out of my wallet to get through the station turnstiles. However, in the future scenario above, that sort of convenience might apply to one card, but not to the rest.

As a software guy at heart, I see the logical solution being to turn all of these cards into pieces of software running on a single piece of hardware – that way the multiple pieces of hardware won’t conflict at the radio level and, essentially, changing the game. Whether that hardware is a phone, a dongle or just another plastic card, this has got to be the future for contactless.

Old books new looks

I read my first proper e-book 17 years ago. It was 1994, and I enthusiastically devoured Bruce Sterling‘s (free!) digital release of The Hacker Crackdown, scrolling through it line-by-line on a  small CRT display. At the modem speeds of the day, it took around 7 mins to download it, and it must’ve taken me a week to read it.

While it was common to write long form content – books, essays, dissertations, and the like – on computers, it is interesting how uncommon it was (for anyone but the author) to read such content on computers. Essentially, computers were a write-only medium when it came to books.

At the time, I knew it was a bit strange to read a whole book this way, but it was a great experience. The book was about the computer culture of the time, and so it was appropriate to be reading it hunched over a computer. However, the process of discovering that a book exists, getting it, and then beginning to read it – all within half an hour – was very satisfying.

Given how long ago I started to read e-books, I’m a little late to the party regarding the modern generation of them. This has now been rectified.

I had to buy our book-club book as an e-book through the Kindle app on our iPad. Not only was it available in time for us to read it compared with buying it for real or borrowing it from the library (it took much less than 7 minutes to download), but it was also:

  • cheaper (less than half the price),
  • easier to share between Kate and myself (no risk of losing multiple book-marks),
  • easier to read in bed (self-illuminating, so less distracting to the other person), and
  • took up none of the scarce space on our bookshelves (given that the book turned out to be not-very-good).

And with the latest book-club book, Bill Bryson’s At Home, I found myself wishing it was an e-book rather than hard-cover. While it would’ve been a lot lighter (the iPad 2 is 600g versus the book at 900g), it was more that this book mentions all sorts of interesting things in passing that made me want to look into them in more detail before continuing. It would’ve been much more convenient to jump straight to a web browser as I read about them, rather than having to put the book down and find an Internet-connected device in order to indulge my curiosity.

All the various advantages that e-readers and tablets have over their physical book counterparts remind me of the advantages that digital music players had over CDs, cassettes and records. However, as I’ve written about before, the digital music player succeeded when it was able to offer the proposition of carrying all one’s music, but e-readers cannot yet offer this.

Apple’s iPod, supported three sources for acquiring music: (i) importing music from my CDs, (ii) file sharing networks (essentially, everyone else’s CDs), and (iii) purchase of new music from an online shop (iTunes Music Store). For e-books on my iPad, it’s not easy to access anything like the first two sources, while there are at several online shops able to provide new reading material. As a result, the iPad (or any other e-reader) doesn’t really offer any way for me to take my book library with me wherever I go.

Although, that would be pretty amazing, it’s honestly not that compelling. I could go back and re-read any book whenever I want, but that’s not actually something I feel I’m missing. I could search across all my non-fiction books whenever I needed to look something up, but really I just use the Internet for that sort of thing.

The conclusion may be that books aren’t enough like music. The experience of consuming music – whether old media or new digital – is sufficiently similar that the way for technology to offer something more is to, literally, provide more of it – thousands of pieces of music. However, for books, the new digital experience of books may end up being a very different thing to the books of old.

Already, there are books with illustrations that obey gravity and can be interacted with,  books that are like a hybrid of a documentary and allow you to dig deep as you like into the detail, and we’ve only just started. If these are the sort of books that I’m going to have on my iPad in future, why would I want to be putting my old-school book collection on there instead? I can also imagine publishers seeing the chance to get people to re-purchase favourite books, done with all the extras for tablets, in the same way that people re-purchased their VHS collection when they got a DVD player.

So, while my book-club e-book experience wasn’t materially different to the one I had 17 years ago, we are going through a re-imagining of the digital book itself. If it took journalists 40 years from the first email in 1971 to officially decide to drop the hyphen from “e-mail”, then the fact that we still commonly have a hyphen in “e-book” suggests it’s not a mature concept yet, despite the progress of a mere 17 years.

Someone needs to invent …

… a tiny, highly directional speaker that can be used in portable devices like laptops, tablets and mobile handsets.

Given the helpful comments that I got last time I made a wish for a product, directing me to exactly what I was after, I am hoping that I’ll get lucky again. But I’ve searched around, and I fear that it doesn’t (yet?) exist.

Normal speakers in portable devices are unsuited to a shared environment when I’m going about a personal activity. For example, if I want to watch a TV program on my laptop, while my wife watches some video on the iPod on the couch next to me, we are going to interfere with each other, making it difficult for either of us to listen to our shows.  Similarly, in an office environment where people are sitting on adjacent desks, it would be great if the sound from any one computer wasn’t audible to the rest of the office. Or alternatively, where many people are on a train and watching video or playing games on their portable devices, reducing the interfering noise would be appreciated.

Headphones are unsuited to both “snacking” type tasks (pick up the device, do something quickly, put it down again) and where a camera is used (as in a video call). If I have to stand up, put down the device, find the headphones, connect them, put them on, then sit back down every time I find I want to watch a video, the result is that I don’t watch videos. And in a video call, while the trend is more and more towards an almost “present” level of quality, seeing the other party wear headphones pretty quickly breaks the illusion. Needing peripherals, such as headphones, usually indicates a compromised experience.

Even if the audio quality is relatively poor, I would still rush out and get a portable device if it had the ability to produce directional audio. I don’t necessarily need high fidelity for watching online video or making a video call.

It appears that the basic technology needed for this sort of speaker is an array of ultrasound generators. You know it has got to be awesome technology if it uses something called ultrasound, right?

From the details on the Explain that Stuff! website, it seems that basically two (ultra) high frequency audio signals are produced, and it is the beat frequency between them that is the actual audio that you hear. Because the frequencies are so high, they are highly directional.

I have found only one product on the market that uses this approach – the American Technology Corporation HSS-H450 – which is a foot long and available for the bargain price of US$1,069.62 (strangely, that’s a UK site).  Meanwhile, I have come across a kit that might be used to make your own (if you’re more talented than I am at electronics). Alternatively, there are some less-than-ultrasonic but still directional speakers that I’ve found from Brown Innovations and Dakota Audio. But neither would suit embedding in an iPad, let alone an iPod.

So, I continue to wait and hope…

TV Set Obsolecensce

In an email to friends back in August, I wrote this..

We saw an old TV out the front of one of our neighbours today. Perhaps someone who has replaced their ancient set with something better suited to Olympics viewing?

The TVs of old were like furniture, while today’s TVs are like pictures. They used to have pride of place in the living rooms, in cabinets made from expensive-looking timbers. There were fancy looking knobs, boxes for the speakers. They were substantial pieces, indicating their substantial role in the entertainment and education of families.

But now a TV is a thin, fragile screen that can barely hold itself up straight. They need a stand or a bracket. Some plasma screens need professional installation or they can be damaged. Just like the cost of framing a picture can be a substantial fraction of getting artwork on your wall, this precious screen comes with additional costs to enable you to properly appreciate it.

I wonder though, that at the very time TVs are becoming flat, thin, and almost insubstantial devices, that their role in entertainment and education is at risk of becoming equally insubstantial. Or perhaps more like high-tech decoration, providing ambient audio and vision in modern living rooms.

And in reply, George said..

What an extraordinary pile of codswallop.

That may be, but it’s true all the same.

I’m posting this ancient thread of email because I’m going to explain myself in the next post.