The Future of Cell Phone Headsets

There are some interesting speculations in an O’Reilly Network article by Peter Drescher entitled The Annoying Future of Cell Phone Headsets. The predictions start about halfway down page three of the article, and focus on the rise of stereo headsets for phones (as in the iPhone):

Until recently, talking on the phone was, without exception, a monaural experience. Even now, I almost always pull out one earbud out when I’m on a call. But the case of “listening to music, then the phone rings” is so common you quickly get used to the schizophrenic feeling of the voice in your head. In fact, it can even make you feel more connected to your caller, and facilitate communications in high-noise environments, like, say, every street-corner call you’ve ever made.

Stereo headphones create an audio barrier around your head. The world goes silent (or at least gets a lot quieter), and you navigate through the environment with your own soundtrack. But with stereo headsets, people who have your phone number can now pierce that barrier and join you inside it (and in the exact center of it). If your caller is also wearing a stereo headset, it’s as if your bubbles are connected…. You’re inside of their head, and they’re inside of yours.

The article goes on to suggest some of the new social behavior (and supporting applications) that will start to take hold when stereo bluetooth headsets are the norm:

  • Better sounding phone calls. “There’s no reason why the headset can’t produce full-resolution voice audio, since it’s already doing it for music playback.”

  • Better conference calling. “In a mobile broadband world, you could receive multiple streams of conferenced calls and position them in the stereo field for increased intelligibility.”

  • Sharing audio, with conversation. “Imagine if I could authorize your headset to pick up my phone’s audio signal, then we could both listen to what my phone was playing…. These headsets have built-in microphones, so there’s no reason why you couldn’t mix your voice into the shared music stream. Then I can talk to you, you can talk to me, and we can both still hear the music.”

  • Sharing game sound. “Speaking of 3D audio, let’s use that feature in a mobile Star Wars game to send those damn Imperial TIE-fighters buzzing around your head like flies, giving you more reason to swat them out of the sky. Then you can switch to multiplayer mode and contact the rest of your squadron. Now you’re bantering via voice data network with Red Leader on your left and Red 5 on your right, all while blasting spaceship formations in coordinated attacks.”

The article concludes with a compelling vision of a likely future:

I’m looking at wireless stereo headsets, and thinking that as they become more comfortable, more useful, more powerful, more commonplace, and more stylish, there will be fewer and fewer reasons to ever take them off. Eventually, you’ll just stick them in your ears and forget about ’em.
They will become like acoustic contact lenses, or a heads-up display for your ears. They’ll let you access and control a virtual audio reality that streams in from wireless networks all around you and is mixed with voice data from your phone and from everybody’s phone. And although the ubiquitous audio network I’m describing does not yet exist, you can actually listen to what it might sound like today.

It’s completely analogous to being in a recording studio, isolated by big headphones, auditioning multiple tracks, and talking to the control room via live mic. I remember my first time in a real studio: I put on the cans and was astounded by the sense of space, the detailed audio field, and the sound of my own voice — in my head, through the mixing board. Now imagine that feeling as a mobile experience, but instead of talking to the engineer on the other side of the glass, you’re walking down Broadway, talking to someone on the other side of the world.

I’m sure that at first, when only a few people are living in the mobile “heads up” auditory network, they will be quite “annoying” in public spaces, but eventually, I imagine we’ll figure out how to deal with that. There’s a lot that’s compelling in this vision. I’ve always imagined heads-up visual displays being one of the harbingers of the era of wearable computing, but Peter makes a pretty compelling case that it’s in audio that we’re going to see the first signs of ubiquitous wearable computing.