Smart headphones could be the smartglasses for the rest of us

Source: The Guardian | Published:  April 18, 2014 By Samuel Gibbs

What if your headphones were smart enough to know where you are, which direction you are facing and could play 3D sounds capable of giving you directions – without the need for a screen or glasses strapped to your face?

The Intelligent Headset from Danish audio specialists GN can do just that using built-in sensors that relay information to a smartphone or tablet and allow the headset to know where and what you are facing at any time.

“It took us under two years to develop the headphones, which are based on our sister company Jabra’s Bluetooth headphones, upgraded with a gyroscope, GPS and compass integrated into the top band,” said Lars Johansen, one of the developers of the Intelligent Headset.

Wearable technology, hidden in plain sight

The headphones do not obviously look like a piece of wearable smart technology, unlike smartglasses like Google Glass. The only sign that they are more than Bluetooth headphones is a small lump in the headband that contains the extra sensors and electronics.

Intelligent Headset
Intelligent Headset Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

“They connect via Bluetooth to a smartphone or tablet and allow us to use 3D positional audio to give the wearer real-time audio feedback on their actions or location – they’re like an audio version of Google Glass,” explained Johansen.

Like Google Glass, the Intelligent Headset has a lot of potential for all sorts of innovative uses in audio and gaming, but also in navigation and support for blind people.

Gaming, walking, touring and talking

While GN has opened up the Headset to developers, and is currently seeking “killer apps”, its in-house developers like Johansen have already come up with some very interesting applications.

Intelligent Headset Zombie X game
Intelligent Headset Zombie X game Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

Johansen has developed an iPhone game called Zombie X, which uses 3D-spatial audio to simulate an immersive zombie attack in a 360-degree space around the wearer. Players have to pinpoint the direction of the attack using audio alone. As the player rotates, the direction of the audio source changes, and once the zombie is right in front of them hitting a button will fire a gun and take the beast down.

Other applications being demonstrated included an audio tour of a museum, which explained to the wearer what they were looking at with the touch of a button. Some exhibits emitted sounds associated with their function, like the sounds of water pouring for a fountain or the puffs of steam for an engine, allowing the wearer to pinpoint the attraction’s location by the direction the sound source.

Intelligent Headset audio tour
Intelligent Headset audio tour Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

GN’s 3D-audio technology also allows immersive music listening experiences. Wearers can walk through an orchestra, for instance, and hear the individual instruments pass them by. The headset could also recreate a concert, where it sounds like the user is standing in the middle of the crowd.

‘Something smaller, more discrete’

Besides entertainment, GN sees applications for helping blind or partially sighted people with navigation, using directional audio cues to indicate which way they need to move or where a building is, like an audio version of satellite navigation.

The headset is still in development, but pre-orders are available nowcosting $420 and shipping in July this year.