Here today. Hearing aids tomorrow?

It’s been a good month for hearables, at least if you look at the $17 million that Doppler Labs has just raised.  But it asks the question of where hearables are going, as well as what consumers think they’re getting?

Doppler Labs started off life a few years ago with DUBS – a high tech earplug aimed predominantly at concert fans to help protect their hearing.  Unlike conventional foam earplugs, the DUBS are designed to attenuate fairly evenly across the audible spectrum, so they reduce the volume without distorting the music.  They appear to have gone down well, with the Coachella Valley music festival buying 135,000 pairs to hand out to attendees.

However, what has got everyone talking is Doppler’s recent Kickstarter campaign for their Here active listening earbuds.  2,855 backers pledged $635k to help bring them to life (and presumably to help close the external funding).  The questions are what those backers think they’ve bought and why?

I ask that because the Here is an interesting device.  If you’ve not seen it, click Here.  It’s not a music player.  If you’re wearing it you can’t stream music via Bluetooth or a conventional wire.  What it does, some may say all it does, is act as a volume control to attenuate or manage what you hear.  It’s almost like a reverse hearing aid, which helps you hear less rather than hear more.  Much of the internal technology is very like that a hearing aid, but its application and customer base are very different.  That makes it a very interesting product in the hearables spectrum.  I suspect it may have an important impact on the hearing aid industry, but not in the way many might imagine.

It’s good to see that Doppler Labs has been successful with their Kickstarter campaign and external funding, not least because their product offering is so different.  There have already been a number of other wireless earbuds, of which the poster child is Bragi’s Dash, which raised almost $3.4 million.  They had the advantage of being first out with a concept (Earin, who followed with a similar concept a few months later managed only around $1.5 million).  In sheer numbers the most successful crowd-funding campaign for a hearable device has been the Axent Cat Ear headphones, which topped the Dash by raising $3,427,341 – 1371% of their target, against 1304% for the Dash, but it is for a very different demographic.  And at least another dozen hearable products have been successfully funded.  Which implies a strong desire to put things on or in our ears.

The Here describes itself as the volume knob which lets you control how you hear the world.  You could consider them as anti-hearing aids, in that they attenuate what you hear, rather than amplifying it.  A lot of early customer questions during the campaign were from people who thought they could be used as hearing aids, even prompting one reviewer to suggest they might be hearing aids for millennials; however, that has never been Doppler’s pitch.  Nor have they played much on their protective capability, which has only been a subtext in their promotion.  Others have been less coy – safety was the key USP for another successfully crowd-funded hearable – Adel’s 1964 earbuds, which focused on the concern that listening to music could damage your hearing.  Adels’ founder, Stephen Ambrose, was an inventor of the original in-ear monitors.  Possibly, as a result, his Kickstarter campaign sounds a bit like a mea culpa for everything that has come after that.

Instead, Doppler are offering is a new way to hear the world.  Aimed at “music lovers, tech enthusiasts and gadget gurus”, they are hoping that there are a sufficient number of people who want to actively change what they hear.  Hans Zimmer, one of their mentors. talks of the ability to “turn off you nagging mother or the dog barking”.  That’s probably the glib end of potential applications, but there’s a lot of things they could do.  As they point out in the promotional video, once you have a computer, microphone and speaker in your ear, the possibilities are endless.

Having said which, you can’t read too much into a crowdfunding success.  As Aristotle said, “one swallow does not a summer make”, nor does one successful Kickstarter project.  It may be the harbinger of a new trend, or just an unfortunate butterfly blown across an ocean.  I’m not totally convinced of the size of the market for some of the concepts in the Here.  I personally don’t find the need to audio curate or EQ my world.  But I’m not the demographic they’re aiming at.  The Here is aimed squarely at the sort of music lover who isn’t square – typically the hipster who wants to be able to take control of their ambient listening experience, possibly because they’re in an acoustically poor part of an auditorium, think they can do better than the sound engineer or just because they can.  There will be a segment who buy it because they want to protect their ears, one that wants to shut out noise from their everyday life and another which smugly thinks they can improve the sound of a live performance.  They’re all valid reasons for buying it, and highlight what the Here has in common with hearing aids – they’re both about live, ambient sound.  They’re both about making it better or more enjoyable, but from very different ends of the spectrum.

One interesting challenge for the Here is how it copes with personal music, by which I mean music streamed from a portable player or mobile phone.  Since the launch of the iPod, the growth of earbuds and headsets has been meteoric, as an increasing number of people spend their days with music constantly flowing into their ears.  Why personal music is so attractive has been exercising psychologists, who suggest that there are three reasons that people listen to it:

  • To combat boredom,
  • To stimulate intellectual curiosity, or
  • To manipulate or influence an emotional state.

More detailed research mapping these to the music that individuals listen to could imply that the vast majority of people in their personal audio world have retreated there because of boredom.  At least that’s the corollary from the music I hear leaking from most commuters’ earbuds.

Whatever the reasons, a large part of the population, particularly the younger demographic have been hooked, as testified by the success of services like Spotify.  That means that more and more people are comfortable with wearing things in their ears.

However, that comes with a risk.  Earlier this year the World Health Organisation launched its “Make Listening Safe” initiative.  Its research indicates that 1.1 billion young people may be a risk of hearing loss because of their levels of sound exposure.  Today around 360 million people in the world have moderate to profound hearing loss, stemming from a wide variety of causes.  Today’s culture of personal music and high levels of sound at music venues could quadruple that.  As the WHO point out, you don’t need much exposure to high levels to cause permanent damage, yet recreational sound exposure continues to rise.  And once you lose your hearing, it won’t come back.  The inevitable, unfortunate conclusion is that more and more people, particularly in middle and high income countries will suffer from hearing loss and need hearing aids.  Somehow, that message needs to get across, but spoiling present enjoyment with a message of future consequences has always been a hard sell.

As well as better industry messaging, it requires a change of habits, which is where Doppler’s experiences with Here will be interesting.  Their promotion of the Here implies that users may wear them all of their waking day.  Which raises an interesting question of how they will listen to their music?  Will they only listen to ambient music, remove their Heres to plug earbuds back in (presumably not what Doppler wants), or wear headphones and Here at the same time?  Might it make music a more considered choice rather than an ever present background stream?  In this new world of hearables anything is possible.  Few remember where the personal music journey started – with an experimental device which let a Japanese executive listen to opera on long haul flights.  That became the Sony Walkman.   Everything in hearables is still an experiment, in the same way that Glass was and the Apple Watch is in the wider wearables market.  Only time will tell.

What intrigues me is where Doppler Labs will go next?  I would dearly love to have seen their investor pitch to see what the $17 million will be funding.  Looking at the spread of investors, my guess is that it will be products and applications based around live music events and those who attend them.  Some of the comments from the founders and supporters during their Kickstarter campaign were interesting – they had considered using Bluetooth for music streaming, but had discarded it, and after adding more apps, their final stretch goal was not more functionality, but a new colour – a lustrous graphite grey.

That says a lot to me about one of the key challenges facing hearables, which is making these devices fashionable.  Hearing aids are still often seen as stigmatising devices, although the industry has made great strides in the past few years to combat this.  Back in 2005, London’s V&A museum invited top designers to come up with concepts for hearing aids.  Henrietta Thompson, the co-curator of the resulting Hearwear exhibition introduced it with the view that “A modern hearing aid, though it might work brilliantly, has the potential to be so much more to millions of people, both in terms of what it can do and how it could look. Too many people prefer to struggle to hear rather than wearing one. It’s ridiculous today when we are surrounded by good design in all areas of our lives, that hearing aids have been forgotten in this way”.

That doesn’t tell the whole story.  If you look at a hearing aid from 2005 and compare it with a current one the advance in design and technology integration has been amazing.  The latest models are sleek pieces of consumer electronics, which look a lot better than the concepts I remember seeing at the V&A exhibition.  The good design is there, but the societal perception that would elevate them from “aid” to fashion statement” is still missing.  Products like the Here could change that perception.  The current design of the Here is not subtle – it’s clunkier than many hearing aids.  It is obvious partly because it is making a statement, but that statement may be what is needed to change perceptions.  It’s quite possible that Doppler Labs could succeed in persuading society that the wearer is not some geek hipster, but that the Here is actually fashionable.

I wish them well.  As they say, the Here is not a hearing aid.  But if they can make it socially acceptable they will provide an immense benefit to the hearing aid industry.  Within the industry there is general agreement that most people put off wearing a hearing aid for at least ten years after the point where they could benefit from one, purely because of the perception of hearing aids.  If a product like the Here starts to change that perception, then the 1.1 billion currently at risk could have a lot to thank them for in just a few years’ time.