Augmented reality is almost exclusively associated with vision, but it does not have to be that way. The Bose audio company announced a project called "Bose AR" at this year's SXSW festival, and showed a pair of prototype glasses that demonstrate how the AR sound looks and feels. The company plans to ship 10,000 of these glasses to developers and manufacturers this summer, with the intention of developing its own line of commercial glasses and partnering with other eyewear companies.
Bose AR devices combine integrated motion sensor data with GPS information from your phone, with which they connect via Bluetooth. The GPS detects where the user is and the nine-axis sensor can determine in which direction it is looking and moving. Small focused speakers sound towards the user's ears. I could hear the audio from a few feet away at a very loud volume in a closed room, but the sound was completely autonomous when it came out. Application developers can tag locations to activate specific audio signals, or they can simply use motion sensors as a head-based gesture control interface.
Bose has set up a $ 50 million fund for Bose's AR developers, and already includes 11 software partners, including Yelp, TripAdvisor and fitness company Strava. The commercial manager of the Bose category, Santiago Carvajal, mentioned companies such as Ray-Ban and Warby Parker as possible hardware partners, but says no one is blocked yet. "We are in talks with several manufacturers of portable hardware in the lens space," he says. The price is not yet determined, and obviously it will vary depending on who is making the glasses.
The company wants to put Bose AR on as many types of devices as possible. A large display showed bicycle helmets, prescription eyeglasses and headphones as examples of possible future products. He had two devices equipped with AR that worked in SXSW: a set of 3D printed glasses and a modified version of his QuietComfort30 headphones, provisionally known as the QC3X. The glasses apparently last three to four hours with a charge, but Bose wants six to eight hours in a commercial version.
Carvajal says that Bose is particularly interested in glasses because they are more comfortable and socially acceptable for constant use than headphones, and do not indicate that you are busy or inaccessible. "We've been wearing glasses for years, everyone accepts them," he says.
Augmented reality glasses are often known to be uncomfortable and socially unacceptable, but Intel recently announced a set of smart glasses with a natural look. Bose AR can go even further because their lenses do not have to handle any type of imaging. The prototype sunglasses are completely normal from the front. They accumulate on the side due to the built-in speakers, motion sensors and a touch screen. But they are still very light, and Carvajal says that the weight should not change much in a production version.
These are audio devices designed to look, not just to listen
Bose created some simple applications for SXSW, which work quite well, if not perfectly. The most impressive demo was an augmented reality tour of the bars and restaurants along an Austin street. It worked as an augmented visual reality, but with sound instead of a viewing screen: look at a building and touch a touchpad on its temple, and offer one or two sentences about what's inside. The locations were not very precise, and from time to time they would tell me things that were on the edge of my field of vision, instead of what I was trying to see. But he was close enough to seem basically accurate, like having someone walking by your side and pointing the reference points.
I'm not sure exactly how accurate the developers can follow up. Carvajal told me that Bose AR could probably say when you looked at a specific statue in a park, for example, but not a small plaque on the wall. It is not as ambitious as AR projects based on phones and glasses that "anchor" virtual objects in extremely specific locations. Bose AR probably could not handle something like translating a specific sign in real time, unless a hardware manufacturer adds a camera, which usually opens up a lot of new problems.
Low risk and not ridiculous
That said, there really was a language application for the QC3X headphones. I offered some phrases in French or Spanish when I looked at a metro or hotel, or in SXSW, beacons that simulated those things. Voice recognition allows me to give you commands, or repeat phrases and get comments. (It turns out that it is very bad in French.)
A demonstration offered a more everyday use case. Again with headphones, I chose between several playlists by turning my head, as if they were physical objects arranged in front of me. The directional sound faded as he looked in different directions. When I went to "work" and "the gym" (represented here by Bluetooth beacons, located close together for convenience) I would ask if I wanted to change my playlist and automatically adjust the sound settings, such as noise cancellation levels. Headphone companies like Bragi are already using gesture controls, but Bose AR seems like it could offer more sophisticated options.
Bose AR's utility will depend on what the developers do with it, and hearing someone talk to you does not feel as amazingly high-tech as looking at a hologram. But depending on how much the system costs, it offers a fresh and low-risk way of thinking about augmented reality. It could also be easily complemented with a visual screen, since both visual and audio ARs depend on the understanding of movement and location. For now, it's just a pair of AR glasses that do not look ridiculous, which is still a rare accomplishment.