Doppler Labs just moved into a new office in San Francisco, and it’s a mess. The fridge is empty, and there are half-unpacked boxes everywhere.
But the team has bigger things to worry about. Doppler’s new product, a set of earbuds called Here that let you adjust the world’s sounds to your exact liking, is launching in two weeks. CEO Noah Kraft calls it “superhuman hearing 1.0.”
Inside a windowless concrete-and-drywall conference room that feels straight out of Taken 4, Doppler executive chairman Fritz Lanman flips open a case and pulls out two earbuds. They’re white and round, about as large as a quarter and as thick as a Reese’s cup. He quickly checks to make sure they’re paired with his iPhone, and then hands them to me. I put them on, and he starts talking.
Here is not a pair of headphones, and it’s not a hearing aid. The earbuds are a way to customize your hearing. They’re a way to turn down and perfect the volume of our ever-louder world. They’re a way to make your commute a little more palatable, to make the concert sound as good in section 331 as in row 1. Most importantly, Here is the beginning of Doppler’s long-term vision for “hearables,” tech that lives in our ears—eventually throughout every moment of the day.
For now, the pitch goes like this: The world is too damn loud. Put in the Here earbuds, and suddenly you have volume control and equalization, or EQ, for your ears. You can turn everything up or down, crank the bass, even selectively mute sounds you don’t want to hear—the screeching subway, a crying baby. “Hearing is a human feature, and we want to make that awesome,” Lanman says. “Just having a volume knob in your ears is amazing.”
As he spoke, I spun a dial on the phone’s screen, and suddenly Lanman was three decibels louder. I spun it back the other way, to -12db, and he dropped to a whisper. Then I hit one button in the “Effects” section of Doppler’s companion app, and his words echoed a hundred times. Another, and his words reverberated like we were on stage in Carnegie Hall.
Over the course of a 30-minute demo, Lanman played music and live-mixed every frequency up and then down for my ears only. He made the song flange and echo and then turned on “Fuzz,” which sort of makes it sound like your ears are exploding. (The engineers thought it was funny, so they made it.)
It’s just a prototype, and an early one at that. There’s a constant, faint buzz that never lets me forget I’m wearing the buds. Even when I turn Lanman all the way down, I can still hear him—he promises that’ll change when they fully integrate noise cancellation. And when I hit the “Baby Suppress” button, the morbid-sounding mode designed to mute crying babies, Lanman himself gets much quieter.
But when I turned the bass in Calvin Harris’ “Outside” down from club-thumping to butterfly-kissing levels, and no one heard it but me, I really did feel superhuman.
The Doppler team fancies itself the first to imagine augmented hearing as something beyond hearing aids, but that’s not exactly true. By some accounts, even the first headphones, more than a hundred years ago, were built by Utah inventor Nathaniel Baldwin as equal parts amplifier and suppressor. In 2005, U.K. design group Human Beans ran a competition for what it called “hearwear,” and produced various prototypes. Ample research has been done on the subject, too, including a study from Finnish researchers who suggested headphones could successfully provide what they called “a pseudoacoustic representation of the real environment.”
What Doppler is really doing is turning this theoretical research into something you’d wear. That may be an even harder problem: Nobody likes wearing hearing aids, and Bluetooth headsets have become a joke. And don’t get Kraft started on the mistakes Google made with Glass.
Kraft thinks the key is to make perfectly clear what these things are for, and even more importantly, what they’re not. They’re not for wearing 24 hours a day, for instance. They’re not for listening to Spotify, talking to Siri, or making phone calls; the Doppler team left those features out of Here on purpose, though it was the subject of some serious internal debate.
“This is an episodic, niche product,” Kraft says. It’s going to be marketed mostly for music lovers. The first use case Doppler’s thinking about is tweaking a concert to sound just right.
From there, though, the vision gets big, fast. Kraft compares Doppler to Microsoft and Apple, and the company’s vision statement—“a computer, speaker, and microphone in every ear”—is a purposeful riff on Microsoft’s “a computer on every desk and in every home.” Kraft talks about inventing categories and drops words like “hearables” and “hearbuds” often enough that he quickly sounds like every other hype man in Silicon Valley.
But he has a plan.
Doppler almost never was. In early 2013, Lanman had just sold his company, a recommendations service called Livestar, to Pinterest. He’d had a long career as a corporate strategy exec at Microsoft, and was an early investor in companies like Square and Pinterest. He was rich, tired, and ready to take a break.
Then a friend—a high-profile record executive who Lanman won’t name—told him he had to meet this kid. “This kid” was Kraft. A recent Brown grad with a shock of red hair, a big beard, and an infectious knack for presentation, Kraft had been doing media consulting for Google and a record label and producing a movie with Martin Scorsese. And he had an idea.
Well, not really an idea. He’d just been thinking about music and sound a lot while touring with an electronic musician. (Kraft is a drummer, and a serious music buff.) He was hanging out in concert venues, noticing that sound quality went from great to garbage depending on where you stood. “You pay the same amount,” he says, “but you go stand in the back left—it’s totally different audio!” What if there were a way to skip the sound guy and optimize your own ears?
Kraft, the head-in-the-clouds creative, and Lanman, the clouds-are-for-servers engineer, were a perfect match. “I wanted to give him money, and I wanted him to do his thing,” Lanman says. But Kraft didn’t need cash; he needed a partner. “What he really got me jazzed about was the ears,” Lanman says. He’d seen a million “me-too” wristwear wearables pitches—this felt different. “The ears is such a logical place, because we’ve been wearing wearable tech on our ears since the Walkman.”
Doppler’s first product was Dubs, a set of earplugs. Kraft wants you to call them “acoustic filters,” but they’re sophisticated earplugs, designed to mute certain frequencies while leaving others alone. It’s a deeply boring product category, which makes Dubs all the more impressive: They were covered widely by the press, and even won a coveted Red Dot Design Award in April. Among other partners like SoulCycle and Bonnaroo, Coachella gave a pair of Dubs to each one of its 135,000 attendees this year.
Dubs served a specific purpose: to develop partnerships and supply chains, to get the Doppler name out, to start building a team of superstar engineers and designers. But they weren’t the endgame. Neither is Here.
Since the beginning, they’ve been working on the signal-processing and frequency-tuning processes, tweaking the algorithms that let the Here buds collect, process, and play back sound without you ever noticing the lag. “This isn’t just a little Kickstarter wearable thing,” Lanman says. Doppler has a 20-year vision—Dubs was phase one. Here is phase two.
The next phase for Doppler involves creating what Lanman calls “Google Street View, but for sound.” Doppler wants to map every concert venue, every street corner, every windy mountain top, and offer automatic optimizations for you. Right now it’s all about manual control, but eventually Here could just make the world sound better. They’re also looking into letting musicians offer EQs for their sets so that the sound guy doesn’t have all the control, as well as letting musicians mix other performers—for instance, you could hear Avicii’s take on the Alesso performance.
Right now, Here is for niche use, but Doppler desperately wants to someday make a product you never stop wearing. There’s tension, too, especially between the two co-founders, about how fast Doppler should move. Lanman is the pusher; he wants the kitchen sink in your ears.
In 10 years, Lanman says, you’ll be wearing these 24 hours a day. “You put them on, and at night you can hear waves and your wife doesn’t have to hear waves. She can hear the baby crying, if she’s nursing, and you don’t have to. Neither of you have to hear the garbage truck. Then maybe you get up in the morning, and you listen to music, and you take a phone call.” He describes a full day—the sounds of the office, the too-loud concerts, the dates in bars where you can hardly hear each other. And yes, they’ll eventually do things like voice control and Star Trek-like translation and who knows what else.
That’s all for later. Over time, Here will get better, and smaller, and more versatile. That’s just how tech works. Right now Doppler is hellbent on making sure people know when to use them. “We want the first time you see it to not be on the wall at Best Buy,” Kraft says. “We want you to see someone wearing it at Coachella.”
But first, Kickstarter. You can pre-order the buds for $179, and they’ll be $249 when they officially launch in December. Doppler doesn’t need the money, so it’s looking to Kickstarter as a way to find people who can get into the idea of bionic hearing and maybe don’t worry so much that the first version is a little bulkier than preferred. And from there, Doppler hopes, they’ll grow the audience one festival-goer at a time.
They’re not for everyone—they’re big, they’re a little awkward, and for all Doppler’s careful branding, there’s something undeniably strange about having white discs protruding from your ears. But there’s a market for this, whether it’s musicians or the tech-hungry hordes of Kickstarter backers.
After the demo, I head back out into the streets of San Francisco. I have lots of doubts about Here, but it’s rush hour, and I suddenly start hearing everything: the construction, the cars, the cellphones, the yelling. For all my skepticism, one thing is certain: The world sounds a lot nicer with Here in my ears.
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