As I leave Doppler Labs' office in San Francisco's SOMA district, I'm more aware of the sounds of the city than ever. As I walk down the sidewalk, I hear the growl of every car engine, the screechy brakes and honking of a city bus, a woman whistling, and a guy pushing a cart next to me with one squeaky wheel. When I get on BART to Oakland, the woman behind me on the train is clearing her throat continuously. Heh-hmmm. Heh-hmmmm. Heh-hmmmmmmmm.
I'm acutely aware of every happening in my sonic environment, because I just demo'ed a product that hopes to one day give us all the ability to turn any of these noises off, one by one.
Doppler Labs has been working for the last two years on a pair of chunky ear buds called Here Active Listening that could let you remix the world around you. The quarter-sized white plugs are basically a computer you put in your ears. Microphones on the outside pick up the noise around you. A tiny computer inside the plugs processes the noise in real time with software that enhances or eliminates certain frequencies, and then Here’s speakers play it back to your ears. All in real time. So theoretically, if you were sitting on a plane with a crying baby, a coughing man, and an attractive seat mate, you could turn off the baby and the sick dude, and turn up your flying companion.
"They let you exercise your preferences and not be bombarded by noise," says Doppler Labs' orange-bearded CEO Noah Kraft. "It's a powerful computer in your ears."
When I tried Here out last week, Kraft used the earbuds to turn his voice way up and then way down. One minute, he sounded like he was on an echo-y mic in a stadium, and then, the next minute, it sounded like he was whispering to me in a hallway. He played Prince’s “Kiss” to show me how I might use the ear plugs at a concert, turning up the reverb, or turning down the bass. But what especially impressed me was that even when he blasted the music, I could still hear him talking to me—not my usual experience at a concert or bar with too-loud music.
These ear computers could also be great for eavesdropping. Once during my demo, I asked Kraft a question, and someone sitting on the far side of the room responded. It should have been hard to hear him, but it wasn’t. The computers in my ears picked up his voice and magnified it. It felt like I had Superman’s ears. (Having super-ears can be a bad thing, too—a fan that I had barely noticed when I first came in sounded like a wind storm with the Here earbuds in.)
Using technology to improve our senses isn't a new notion. We already have hearing aids for people with poor hearing and contact lenses and glasses for the visually impaired. But normalizing super-senses is something new.
Here is still a prototype that few people have tried, but in December, the company is shipping out 10,000 of them to the 3,000 people who funded its original Kickstarter (before it got $17 million from venture capital firms), "taste influencers," and some of the thousands of people who have signed up on the company's waiting list to buy a pair for $199.
I was the first person to try out Here who brought my own sounds with me. The night before, my brother-in-law recorded my newborn niece crying to be fed, time stamped 3 a.m.. I also brought some of my pet peeves: the sounds of someone chewing with their mouth open, a jack hammer, and a first-person shooter video game. (When I'm on public transportation or in a waiting room with someone playing Game of War or a Tetris-looking-thing on their phone without headphones, it drives me insane.)
I played my annoying noises while Kraft fiddled with sound-filtering algorithms on his smartphone. As he did, I started imagining a future in which everyone has these computers in their ears, a wearable technology like Google Glass but way less obvious and off-putting. People could choose not to hear the crowd noise around them in a stadium, or turn off protesters gathered outside (or inside) their work.
What noises would you turn off? What or who would you mute? Here could make our lived environment more like our online one, where we can block the parts of the world we don’t want to encounter. It’s getting us one step closer to the world in Black Mirror’s Christmas special, where there’s an IRL block button for people.
The technology is not quite there yet though. Here could kill the jack hammers and almost kill the person eating loudly. But it stumbled on the multi-layered sound in the video game and in my niece’s hunger cry.
"Getting a baby out of your world is really hard," said Kraft. "It cries across a lot of frequencies by biological design so that you're forced to hear it."
But Kraft says that Here's software will improve and that one day, it'll get to a point where even this will be mute-able. "In the future, we want to make it so you get a message, 'We hear a baby crying. Do you want to reduce it?'," says Kraft.
While Here couldn’t turn my niece’s cry off, it did dull the sharp highs and lows and when it did, it took away some of the alarm I felt. In a crazy working of brain magic, in dulling the sound, it dulled my emotional response. Here has only been tested in the real world by Doppler Labs employees but they've had similar experiences. After their head of design wore it to a concert, he forgot to turn off the reverb when he got on a crowded train, and realized he didn't feel as agitated as normal. Here changed the nature of the noise around him in a calming way and soothed him.
"We forget how noise fatigues the ears," said Kraft. "I think in the future everyone will have computers in their ears all the time."
Here struck me as a way to turn the world off. But its creator fervently disagrees. Kraft wants to make it easier for the real world to compete with the carefully curated one that so captivates us on our smartphones.
"We want to help root people in what's happening around them rather than on screens or in devices," said Kraft. "We're pushing against the Oculus Rift and virtual reality trend. The world is an awesome place. We want to enhance it so you can be present in it. It's why we spelled Here the way we did."
But not staring at screens means not staring at one fiddling with sound parameters, so Kraft imagines that one day the ear plugs will automatically filter for you. The software could decide what's a sound you want to hear and what's just "noise" that you don’t. We’re all already angsty about what the Facebook algorithm hides from us online. When software is creating real world sound bubbles for us, what will disappear?
A version of this piece was presented on November 7, 2015 at the Real Future of Sound at our Real Future Fair in San Francisco.