Bone conduction earphones
Bone conduction earphones from London-based startup Voxos put a whole new spin on safe and sound.
Technology is always moving forward and breaking new boundaries, right? Well, for the most part that’s true. However, if you’re somebody who is old enough to remember the early days of personal sound systems (and unfortunately I am), this isn’t an area that has progressed as much as you might think.
Although I’m not quite old enough to remember when music was first made portable, with the introduction of the first Walkman, I can certainly recall the furore over the arrival of the first Discman back in the 1980s. Of course things have moved on since then. From the albeit brief appearance of the MiniDisc (remember them?), to the seismic impact of the MP3 player, and more specifically the iPod.
However, while the technology of how we listen to audio has become infinitely more sophisticated, the delivery system hasn’t altered all that much. Yes, I’m sure that you’d much rather listen to your favourite tunes via a pair of Beats rather than the generic low performance set of headphones that you used to get free with a certain smartphone.
Advances in this area have more specifically been focussed on improving the quality of the audio – which of course is fair enough, but the drawbacks of using a pair of headphones are the same today as they were way back when my walk to school was accompanied with the soundtrack to UB40’s Labour of Love album on my Walkman (I can’t believe I just admitted that). Those drawbacks of course, are fairly obvious. Headphones isolate you from the environment around you. And while there are social implications to this, there is also a safety issue as well. Particularly if you’re using headphones whilst walking around a busy city such as London – with other pedestrians, cars and bikes to contend with.
Wearing them for a sustained period of time can also be uncomfortable, and if you haven’t migrated to Bluetooth connectivity yet, you also have an awkward lead to contend with, particularly inconvenient if you listen to music while exercising.
However, a new solution has been presented by London-based startup Voxos, in the form of a new pair of smartglasses. How is a pair of glasses going to improve my audio experience I hear you ask? It’s a fair question – but while Voxos might look like a refined pair of sports glasses, they have one unique feature - built-in bone conduction technology.
HOW DOES IT WORK?
Bone conduction works by vibrating sound through your skull opposed to straight into your ear like standard headphones. This means you can hear your environment whilst listening to music, as well as Google Maps, audiobooks, fitness apps and answering your phone. I caught up with the company’s co-founder, Maja Köberl, to find out more, and of course, to have a try.
Köberl, originally from Austria, and someone who describes music as her best companion whilst out and about, has experienced the safety issue behind traditional headphones all too closely when she witnessed a women next to her on a station platform getting hit by a train and flying across the platform. The woman was disconnected from her surroundings due to wearing a pair of headphones and could not hear the approaching train - she ended up with serious head injuries. This inspired Köberl, and company CEO Sanjay Daswani, to research and develop an alternative solution, and so Voxos was born.
"Bone conduction technology has been around for a while,” commented Köberl, "and we’ve really seen its potential and benefits. However, usually when you look at a pair of smart glasses, they are very big and not really made for everyday life. We wanted to change that so we asked, why not put the technology into an everyday accessory so that everyone can benefit and use it whenever and wherever they want – and that doesn’t look out of place?”
Bone conduction is the conduction of sound to the inner ear through the bones of the skull. It is one reason why a person’s voice sounds different to them when it is recorded and played back. The technology is basically a way of using vibrations from sound to send waves through your bones instead of your ears, and these sound waves travel through your cheek bones via your brain.
The technology has been around for a number of years, and Voxos certainly aren’t the only ones using it. However, Köberl continued: "What sets us apart is definitely the universal fit. We looked at the other products out there and one of the criticisms users had was that other products tended to be too tight, to the point where they couldn’t be worn all the time. There is also the lenses. We work with a UK-based optician who does all the high quality lenses for us. So customers come to us with their lens requirements and we make it for them – it’s a full service. The glasses are lightweight and practical, and also have a ten hour battery life ”
Voxos has entered mass production (in Korea) and, at the time of writing, has produced around 600 units. Customers can acquire the Voxos glasses via the website and have also developed relationships with a number of online retailers.
The biggest target market for the company is sport and fitness, although as Köberl explained: "Basically if you use headphones this could be a safe alternative for you.” The safety element of the glasses is not to be underestimated, and it is a key selling point for Voxos, who have already tied up with HSBC UK and British cycling as part of their ‘Let’s Ride’ events. The company is also in partnership with Westminster City Council where the glasses are being promoted as a road safety device.
Köberl continued: "You see many young people who are tied to their screen and they’re reluctant to let go of their devices, so this is where our technology becomes very interesting. It’s still a cool gadget (let’s face it young people aren’t going to wear them if it’s not), but it has that safety element. It also enables you to answer your phone because we want people to keep their phone in their pocket and not look at their screen.”
Another application area for the glasses is within healthcare, which Voxos also see as a key target market, as Köberl added: "We will also be taking the glasses to some healthcare related events as the glasses have been tested with tinnitus patients. It actually enables the patient to achieve pain relief through the sound vibration. Usually tinnitus patients have to plug themselves in with headphones and use sounds on their phone in order to relax – this can be painful over a sustained period of time. With Voxos they could do this constantly and comfortably, yet not be isolated from the environment around them.”
Like any new startup, Voxos has encountered some challenges along the way, namely the education of the market, making people aware of the technology and how it can benefit them. "Most people we talk to about bone conduction technology say, ‘yes we’ve heard of it but not in glasses’. So that’s where we are right now, and we’re focussing greatly on telling more people about it,” said Köberl.
At the time of writing Voxos had not gone through any funding rounds but was planning to embark on some pretty soon. "Our goal is to sell a minimum of 50,000 units by this time next year and make the technology a standard for people to wear. The market is not there yet but we’re one of the first companies to really open it up to people, so we really want to be the standard brand. We’re looking forward to our next generation versions.”
The Voxos glasses are equipped with an integrated touchpad on the right hand side. This allows the user to interact with the main functions on the device without the need to look at the screen. Functions that can be activated include an on-device personal assistant, music, GPS/maps, calling, messaging, notifications and apps. Voxos are designed to be worn during long periods of time, and as such have been designed with the lightest components and the most comfortable materials. With its generic and sporty look Voxos fits with every outfit, and whether blue, red, grey, black or green, the user can choose from a large variety of lenses.
Even though you can acquire noise cancelling headphones these days (which have their own drawbacks including cost, power and increased weight), I’m still regularly sat on a train and hear the unmistakable cha-cha-cha of someone listening to music through headphones – irritating to say the least. So, my first question to Köberl after trying the Voxos headphones was, could she hear any of what I was listening to? The answer was no, even though she was sat right next to me and of course I had nothing either in or over my ears (the speakers are located discretely in the arm of the glasses). My next question was, when can I get my hands on a pair?