Sound Band Backers, Rejoice: Thiel Says Your Device is Coming Soon

Good news for Kickstarter backers of Hybra Advance Technology’s Sound Band project: Beta test units have been shipped. Co-founder Joe Thiel said that as soon as Hybra incorporates any feasible changes requested by beta testers, Sound Band units will be sent to all the remaining Kickstarter backers—by the end of the year, Thiel said, if all goes according to plan.

A quick refresher on the Sound Band saga: Hybra initially popped up on Xconomy’s radar in 2013. After an early prototype of Sound Band won a prestigious design and engineering award at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Hybra set out to raise $175,000 on Kickstarter to help pay for final manufacturing costs. (The Sound Band wireless headset is crescent-shaped and fits around the back of the ear. It has flat panels that vibrate very quickly so that, when placed against the back of the ear, the vibrations bypass the outer ear and are conducted directly through the bone, leaving the ear open unlike conventional headphones.)

The initial response from Kickstarter backers was enthusiastic: When Hybra’s campaign ended on Sept. 13, 2013, 3,292 backers had pledged $547,125 toward commercializing the device. Hybra told its backers the estimated date of delivery for Sound Band would be December 2013, with other rewards promised as early as October 2013. As part of its Kickstarter pitch, Hybra had claimed that Sound Band was production-ready and just needed $175,000 for manufacturing.

Those dates passed with no sign of the Sound Band, and the Kickstarter backers began vocalizing their dismay in the comments section of the Kickstarter page. As more time passed and Hybra’s updates continued to be deemed unsatisfactory by some backers, all hell broke loose. Some of the more vocal commenters began calling for Thiel’s head and accusing him of fraud.

Eventually, the employees at Hybra responsible for creating the Kickstarter campaign and making some of the more bombastic claims on the project’s website—particularly the “we nailed it” posting in September 2013 that promised the Sound Band was production-ready—left the company and a new lead engineer was brought in to clean up the design.

That engineer, who has asked that we refer to him as “Bob” because he fears harassment from disgruntled backers if his real name is made public, discovered that much of the original Sound Band design wasn’t viable. Bob spent close to a year nearly reverse-engineering the project to fix what wasn’t working. Now, almost two years after the Kickstarter project closed, the Sound Band seems truly ready for prime time.

A few weeks ago, Thiel reached out and invited me to test the new-and-improved Sound Band prototype. I met with Bob at the company’s headquarters in Warren, MI, and I can confirm that many of the design changes suggested by backers and/or discussed by the company in Kickstarter updates have indeed been implemented. “The user interface is far superior than past iterations,” Bob said.

The Sound Band now is 10 times louder than the original prototype and has improved fidelity and battery life, Bob said. The size of the board housing the electrical components is smaller than the original design, and Bob said all of the components are “state-of-the-art,” with the most up-to-date technology possible.

The Sound Band has a tiny yet responsive joystick that acts as the unit’s controller as well as full Low Energy Bluetooth capabilities. Bob said by the time the final product is shipped, he will have tweaked the Sound Band’s software to enhance the sound of the bass.

But perhaps most significantly, Bob has added sound-dampening material to the unit in an attempt to reduce sound leakage. (The design of the Sound Band turns the listener’s ears into speakers, and because the ears are left open, users can still hear what’s going on around them, turning the ears into gramophones.)

The original unit had a curved piezoelectric component, Bob noted, because Hybra thought that would fit users’ ears better. “That turned out to be totally wrong,” Bob said. “It just needs contact with the ear.”

The new piezoelectric component is now straight, and there will be new tooling on the final version that aims to make the Sound Band more comfortable and able to accommodate different head and ear shapes. “The earpiece on the final unit will be a true one-size-fits-all, and how we’re doing it is a trade secret,” Bob explained. “It will be very different.”

For his part, Thiel has continued to work on improving communications with backers. He’s posted regular updates that have generally been more clear and concise than updates in the past, and he even invited a Kickstarter backer in Michigan visiting family a few weeks ago to test out the Sound Band and post a review for other backers to read. (Click here to read the full review and responses, including a few from Hybra.)

Twelve Kickstarter backers signed up to be beta testers as a reward in the Kickstarter campaign, and Thiel said he’s shipped the prototype unit to seven so far who have signed confidentiality agreements, and he hopes to receive updated contact information for the remaining beta testers soon. He has encouraged the beta testers to post videos and reviews within the bounds of the confidentiality agreement. One of the beta backers has since been deployed to Afghanistan, and Thiel is particularly interested in his feedback as he pursues potential markets for the Sound Band outside of consumer electronics. (More on that in a minute.)

“We’ve gotten a bunch of great feedback already from beta testers,” Thiel said. “All have so far said that the sound quality is good. Nobody said they hated it, and I told them to be really critical—don’t sugarcoat it. We want to know what works and what doesn’t work so we can get it right.”

Thiel said the beta test units purposely went out without some of the final design fixes incorporated because Hybra is interested to see what kinds of improvements the testers suggest. Though the beta prototype unit’s housing has been left open, Thiel said the final version will be encapsulated in a thin yet solid hypoallergenic material. “It will hold the sound inside and make it sweat-proof,” he added.

Theil seems especially pleased that the Sound Band will utilize Bluetooth Low Energy technology, which he described as “the crème de la crème.” Ideally, Hybra will begin shipping the final version of the Sound Band out to all Kickstarter backers in batches of 200 starting in September, completing the process by early 2016.

As the Sound Band’s Kickstarter saga is seemingly coming to an end, Thiel is already looking toward the future and what the long-term plan is for bringing the Sound Band to market. Potential licensees have already begun contacting Hybra, Thiel said.

“We’re working on very cool and unique configurations for specific markets,” he said. “We’ll license the design and let them manufacture it themselves.”

He imagines a simplified helmet-based version of the Sound Band for use in law enforcement or military applications, when having one’s ear open to the surrounding environment would be a tactical advantage. He also envisions helmet-based Sound Bands for use in motorcycling, three-wheeling, and snowmobiling. In addition, he’d like to develop a version of the Sound Band for runners and professional bicyclists, noting that in many athletic events, conventional headphones aren’t allowed for safety reasons.

He thinks the Sound Band could also be used to narrate museum tours, the BLE chip detecting a patron’s location and pulling up the appropriate exhibit information. But he perhaps sounds most excited by a concept he called “In the Game:” a Sound Band for use in athletic stadiums during live sporting events, taking the place of transistor radios sometimes favored by the older generation of fans. Users could hear radio commentary from the booth while also leaving their ears open to hear what’s broadcast on stadium speakers.

“From a growth perspective, we can go right into the Detroit athletic market,” he said. “It could also be used as a safety device if an emergency occurred in the stadium.” In the future, he envisions adding features like coach commentary or on-the-field commentary generated by putting microphones on the players.

“I think it’s going to be fun,” he said of planning future versions and uses of the Sound Band. “Instead of wondering if we can even [produce the Sound Band], now we’re thinking, ‘What can we do with it?’ ”

Asked how his relationship with angry Kickstarter backers has improved, Thiel alluded to possible legal action in the future. “We’ve been a little more forward in saying, ‘Don’t come on here saying stuff if you don’t have proof.’ We’ve been kind of stern about it,” he said. “We’re going to have to defend [negative comments] at some point. It’s not fun, and I’m not looking forward to it, but we have to do it.”

Thiel reiterated that he and Hybra are not engaged in fraud, and said the many delays in getting the Sound Band into the hands of Kickstarter backers are due to the challenges that come with creating a new, innovative piece of hardware that wasn’t as solidly designed as the company initially thought.

“Kickstarter creators who don’t deliver should be in trouble,” he said. “I despise that kind of stuff.”

Despite the turmoil Hybra has gone through in the wake of the Kickstarter campaign, Thiel said he wouldn’t change the experience.

“From a life-learning perspective, I would have done it all over again,” he said. “From a financial and business perspective, I probably wouldn’t have tried to launch a high-tech product through Kickstarter. Kickstarter is good for products that have already been developed or just need an update and have a definable timeline; the potential for marketing and feedback is really great.”

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