Ringing in the Years (and Ears): What I’d Like to Hear in 2016

Opinion

For the last 30 years, the tech revolution in PCs, Macs, and Smartphones has been largely connected with our eyes, not our ears. 2016 will mark the beginning of the commercialization of virtual and augmented reality, and although our visual experience will continue to be the main focus for these radical changes, it’s time our ears started playing a much more important supporting role.

I’m at CES this week; something I’ve been doing since the mid-1980s. This year, though, has put me in two states of mind. First, the overload of new products and exhibits is beyond what a mind can comprehend. Second, the high frequency hearing loss I have in both ears, and the ringing (tinnitus) in my right ear. It was a loud CES party six years ago that took my ears beyond their limits.

From college on, I attended concerts with friends. We knew the bands were too loud for safe listening, but we were young and invincible.  Invariably, we would leave saying, “My ears are ringing.” But there was a difference for me. Where the ringing in the ears would last a day or two for my friends, for me, it would sometimes last for weeks, often accompanied by minor numbness inside the ear itself.

As I got older, audiologists warned me that the numbness was basically nerves that were really unhappy, and potentially damaged. But I just wasn’t listening, and I kept cranking up the volume. By my 40s, I would occasionally bring “acoustically flat” musicians earplugs to concerts (like the Etymotic ETY plugs). I had to take them in and out of my ears continually as music got louder or softer, or if I wanted to speak with my wife and friends.

Through the years, I’ve thought about ears and sound, and had ideas that I was too stupid to patent. To me, sound needs to be a digitally enhanced sense that WE get to control. I want my hearing to be SMART.

I love music. I love concerts. But I find it maddening that a third party can control the volume, and will turn up the volume to the point of pain and ear damage to myself and others. It’s also challenging at parties, when people in an enclosed room start speaking louder and louder until everyone is shouting (and numbing to me). What I want is a way to actively control the volume, sound quality, and my environment.  I want to tune my environment to my hearing, and to my unique sound profile. I want to be able to focus on who I am talking to, even in a loud and crowded room. I started talking about these concepts ten plus years ago, and am only now starting to hear the changes.

Now I’m expecting a plethora of virtual and augmented reality announcements in the upcoming weeks and months, with much of the attention focused on the visual side of this innovation.

Personally, I’ve continued to keep my ears open. I am an investor (and advisor) in Soundhawk, a venture-backed personal sound amplification product that has developed some interesting pieces to this puzzle.  And there are two San Diego companies that I’ve gotten to know. Comhear (which was a Velocity Growth client last year) uses advanced sound technology developed by UC San Diego to enhance audio quality and beam-forming hardware to create a 3D surround “soundbar” speaker. (Imagine hearing sound behind you from a soundbar in front of you.)  Ossic, a newer company looking to do a crowdfunding campaign this year, claims “hi-fidelity, 3D spherical sound” in a unique set of headphones that they believe will be popular with gamers and emerging virtual reality platforms. Their demo, married with a virtual reality headset, is very impressive.

The big guns in the industry, Dolby and DTS, are also active.  Dolby has their Dolby Headphone initiative, and has announced working with Lenovo to put Dolby Atmos on an Android Smartphone.  DTS has their Headphone X initiative, which they say provides a “11.1 channel surround sound movie theater” experience.

So what do I want to hear in 2016?

All the immersive 3D and surround sound promised above.  But I want more.  I want to have a sound isolated (i.e. in-ear) earpiece in each ear that lets me do some really, cool stuff:  Get messages without looking at my phone. Send messages via a bone conduction mike and ever-improving natural language voice recognition. Control my external sound environment via a smartphone app (louder, softer, more high frequency, more or less bass). In essence, “turn down the volume” when I want to. I would wear them all day, every day, in both ears, as the stigma of use rapidly wears off.

In a loud environment, I want to be able to intelligently screen out everyone—except the people I want to talk to.  Imagine a long dining room table, eight people on each side, and you and another person are on the ends. You can see each other; you can easily see verbal cues that assist communication, but you can’t talk without shouting.  I want to be able to have everyone in that room be able to speak directly or in groups, leveraging the power of the smartphone and digital signal processing to do the mediation for me. A friend in a loud room who tends to speak too softly, no problem, I’ll turn up the volume on their object-based voice profile.

It’s great to finally see increasing innovation in the sound space. Even as we devour more gigabytes and terabytes for “eye-centric” use, it’s clear that the information we get from a mere 20 kilohertz of sound spectrum is vital. More devices and apps are inevitable, and I for one can’t wait to hear about it.

Jeffrey Belk was at Qualcomm for almost 14 years, in positions including senior vice president global marketing, and senior vice president, strategy and market development. He serves on the boards of the Wireless Life Sciences Alliance, the UCSD Alumni Association, and the EvoNexus advisory board. He is founder and chairman of Velocity Growth, and has invested several other local companies. Follow @

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