December 6, 2017

The Fall of Doppler Labs

The Fall of Doppler Labs

Doppler Labs

An in-ear computer that allows you to augment your listening experience, drown out sounds you don’t want to hear, and layer music over sounds in your environment. Sounds like something out of a science fiction story, right? Turns out, we’re not so far from this future.

In 2015, Doppler Labs introduced Here One, wireless in-ear headphones that “augment” your audio reality. In fact, “headphones” don’t even quite capture what they were able to do. Unfortunately, just two years after their exciting and groundbreaking release, Here One Earbuds and Doppler Labs are now shuttering their doors. The one consolation, however, is that they’ve opened us up to the possibilities of how we might be able to hear in the future.

Here One Earbuds by Doppler Labs

In The Verve (February 2017), Sean O’Kane reviewed the new Here One Earbuds with Here Active Listening. As hybrid wireless stereo earbuds that streamed audio and a way to augment sounds in your reality, Here One Earbuds had a promising start. On the music streaming side, O’Kane writes, “Listening to music on Here One is like fanning out a deck of cards. You’ll discover there’s more to songs you thought you knew well…With Here One I was able to make out the wetness of Childish Gambino’s mouth (sorry) as he sings in ‘Zombies,’ a detail I had never noticed in dozens of previous listens.”

With Here One Earbuds, there was a mode called “bypass,” which allowed you to pause the music if someone approached you to talk – with just a simple tap on either earbud. Furthermore, Here One Earbuds did something that many advanced hearing aids are able to do: “place sound in the correct space, so if someone is speaking behind me it sounds like they’re behind me. You can close your eyes using Here One and still know where everything is” (O’Kane). This kind of directionality and localization of sounds was one just technology found on hearing aids. It was remarkable that Here One Earbuds offered this feature.

Similarly, that interfacing with the sounds in your world was another major draw: an audio filter called “Live Remix” that allowed wearers “to raise or lower specific audio frequencies of the world around you.” Here One came with a number of different filters to accommodate different listening environments (Airplane, Crowd, City, Noise Mask, Office, Restaurant, and two for enhancing speech in front of or behind you). Again, this was cutting edge audio technology that you can find in advanced hearing aids – now available in wireless earbuds.

What Went Wrong?

Among the many wonders of audio augmentation that one would experience with Here One Earbuds, there were a number of technical issues that eventually lead to the downfall of the product and then Doppler Labs itself.

Though they anticipated much greater sales – which would have given investors more confidence – Here One only sold 25,000 units, rather than hundreds of thousands. And then, there was the increasingly high competition with bigger companies such as Apple (AirPod) and Google (Pixel Bud), coupled with technical issues such as the Here One’s short-lived battery (at best, 2 hours of audio).

In the end, Doppler Labs founder Noah Kraft tells Business Insider, “I wouldn’t advise anyone at this stage to start a hardware business,” pointing to other failures such as Jawbone and Pebble. Against the giants of Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon, smaller hardware businesses don’t stand much of a chance.

Implications for Future Listening

According to The Verve’s O’Kane, Doppler was “working on partnerships with brands and sports teams, so someday soon you’ll be able to wear Here One at a Cleveland Cavaliers game and get commentary or states over the real sound of the game” and “real-time language translation.” In a February 2017 Wired review, David Pierce wrote, “Long-term, Doppler’s work has all kinds of medical implications, translation use cases, and more.”

As Doppler Labs’ VP of Advocacy and Accessibility, KR Liu says, “I know our legacy will live on through the products that will follow from other companies and the movement we helped spur.” He believes at “the market for hearable computers will eventually come to fruition, as Google, Apple, and others invest in smarter headphones” (Business Insider). This incredible innovation has inspired similar features in Apple’s AirPod and Google’s Pixel Buds.

For Now, Hearing Devices You Can Count On

Had Here One continued to Here Two and beyond, Doppler Labs planned features that very closely resembled what you’d get from an advanced hearing aid. In the meantime, for folks with hearing loss, the best bet for hearing technology is a pair of advanced hearing aids.Not unlike Here One Earbuds, most advanced hearing aids offer Bluetooth capabilities, allowing you to stream music and phone calls directly to your ears. With customizable features, wearers can make adjustments to “augment” their listening experience to their liking.

The Legacy of Doppler

In addition to the products they released, Doppler was instrumental in fighting for the recent OTC Hearing Aid bill that was signed by President Trump in August. The products that Doppler made may fade away, but much of their work should continue to have an impact for hearing consumers for years to come.