Bloxvox’s Voice-Dampening Device Gives Users Privacy During Calls

Xconomy Wisconsin — 

Many people who spend a significant amount of time on the phone at work use headphones or a headset so they can go hands-free during calls and type as they talk.

While they have yet to enter the mainstream, there are also devices that fit over the mouth and allow phone talkers to muffle their voices. The idea is to let you discuss sensitive matters when there are people within earshot, preventing them from eavesdropping on—or feeling annoyed by overhearing—your phone conversation.

One of the newest voice-dampening devices is Bloxvox, which is developed by a Milwaukee-based startup of the same name. Bloxvox is seeking to rack up $25,000 in pre-orders of its voice privacy tool as part of a Kickstarter campaign launched on Tuesday.

Greg Umhoefer, the inventor of Bloxvox, says he believes the device has the potential to turn into an everyday consumer product. He says the device is practical for workers in offices with open floor plans and people who take calls while communing by train or bus.

Bloxvox has at least one competitor, Umhoefer says. Ukraine-based Hushme, which markets its device as “the world’s first voice mask for smartphones,” launched its own crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter in May 2017. It’s raised more than $71,000 so far, according to the campaign website.

Other voice-dampening devices worn over the mouth that are available for purchase today include Beltbox (for singers) and several different stenomask models (for courtroom stenographers).

“It’s not a brand new idea to speak and have others not hear you,” Umhoefer says. But he says most of the other rival devices “aren’t really going after mainstream office folks or commuters.”

Bloxvox is made of rigid plastic and thermoplastic elastomer, which is the soft, rubber-like material on the part of the device that touches the user’s face, Umhoefer says. The product is shaped like a cup and doesn’t contain any electronic components, he says. Bloxvox is instead designed to be used in conjunction with microphone-equipped headphones, and has a slit along the side where the user can insert the mic. There’s also a small hole on the convex end of the device, with an attached tube that extends toward the user’s mouth and nose, to allow breathing.

Bloxvox, which fits over the mouth and allows users to muffle their voices when they’re talking on the phone, is sold by a Milwaukee-based startup of the same name. Image courtesy of Greg Umhoefer.

If Bloxvox’s Kickstarter campaign turns out to be successful, Umhoefer says the next step will likely be to manufacture the device in large quantities. He says he made the initial product prototypes using his own 3D printers, but that large-scale production of Bloxvox will require working with an established injection molding company. Umhoefer says he’s currently in discussions with several such businesses.

Bloxvox plans to include a head strap with each device it ships so customers can go hands-free, Umhoefer says. However, headphones must be supplied by the user.

Bloxvox is not compatible with some wireless headphone models, such as Apple’s (NASDAQ: AAPL) AirPods, Umhoefer says. Bloxvox may add Bluetooth technology and a built-in microphone to future versions of its device—or even add wired or wireless headphones, which would make the product a closed system.

A user who wants to order a single Bloxvox device must pledge $50. As one orders more devices, the per-unit cost comes down; for example, you can pre-order 10 units for $400, or 100 of the devices for $3,000. Pre-order customers will only get their devices (and have their credit cards charged) if Bloxvox eclipses its $25,000 goal, Umhoefer says. Competing devices tend to start at around $130, and he claims they’re more bulky and weigh more than Bloxvox.

“I think it’s a really cool solution to a problem,” he says of the product, which he says went through about 75 different prototypes in the past nine months. “But I want to see that confirmation from the market in order to go forward with production” following the crowdfunding campaign, he says.

Umhoefer worked in finance and helped launch a fintech startup before deciding to test the waters as a solo entrepreneur. He says if Bloxvox falls short of its $25,000 goal, he’ll likely turn to other sources to raise the money needed to pay for a large production run of the devices.

“It’s fairly likely that this product will be made one way or another,” he says.

Bloxvox doesn’t have any full-time employees. Umhoefer says he’s gotten some free help from friends in areas such as branding and injection molding. Still, he says, “it’s primarily been me” developing the device.

It can be bit jarring when you see someone using Bloxvox or a similar device for the first time, especially when he or she is also wearing the head strap. (Many bloggers have compared Hushme’s device to the mask worn by Bane in the 2012 film “The Dark Knight Rises.”)

The experience of talking into a noise-muffling device can likewise be somewhat unfamiliar, Umhoefer says.

“I think there’s certainly something unnatural about holding [or wearing] something over your mouth,” he says.

But not every new product looks and feels like it belongs after arriving on the scene, argues Umhoefer.

“Think about a normal headset that’s used at a desk,” he says. “If you didn’t know about it already, it actually looks kind of ridiculous. It’s like a headband with a tiny stick that extends out over your mouth. But, over time, it becomes normal. I think there’s there are a lot of weird-looking products that people just become used to.”