Augmented reality is almost exclusively associated with vision, but it doesn’t have to be. Audio company Bose announced a project it’s calling “Bose AR” at this year’s SXSW festival, and it showed off a pair of prototype glasses that demonstrate what sound-based AR might look and feel like. The company plans to ship 10,000 of these glasses to developers and manufacturers this summer, with the intent of partnering with other eyewear companies.
Bose AR devices combine data from embedded motion sensors with GPS information from your phone, which they connect with via Bluetooth. GPS detects where a user is, and the nine-axis sensor can determine which direction they’re looking and moving. Small, focused speakers pipe sound toward the wearer’s ears. I could hear audio from a few feet away at a very loud volume in an enclosed room, but the sound was totally self-contained when I went outside. App developers can tag locations to trigger specific audio cues, or they can just use the motion sensors as a head-based gesture control interface.
Bose has established a $50 million fund for Bose AR developers, and it lists 11 software partners already, including Yelp, TripAdvisor, and fitness company Strava. Bose category business manager Santiago Carvajal mentioned companies like Ray-Ban and Warby Parker as potential hardware partners but says nobody is locked down yet. “We are in conversations with a number of wearable hardware manufacturers in the eyewear space,” he says. The price is still undetermined, and will obviously vary depending on who’s making the glasses.
The company wants to put Bose AR in as many kinds of devices as possible. A large display rack showed bike helmets, prescription glasses, and earbuds as examples of possible future products. It had two working AR-equipped devices at SXSW: a 3D-printed set of sunglasses and a modified version of its QuietComfort30 headphones, known provisionally as the QC3X. The glasses apparently last three to four hours on a charge, but Bose wants six to eight hours on a commercial version.
Carvajal says Bose is particularly interested in glasses because they’re more comfortable and socially acceptable for constant wear than earbuds, and they don’t signal that you’re busy or unapproachable. “We’ve been wearing glasses for years, they’re accepted by everybody,” he says.
Augmented reality glasses are actually often known for being uncomfortable and socially unacceptable, but Intel recently announced a set of natural-looking smart glasses. Bose AR can go even further because its lenses don’t have to handle any kind of image projection. The prototype sunglasses are completely ordinary-looking from the front. They bulk up on the side because of the built-in speakers, the motion sensors, and a touchpad. But they’re still very light, and Carvajal says that weight shouldn’t change much in a production version.
Bose built a few simple apps for SXSW, which work pretty well, if not perfectly. The most impressive demonstration was an augmented reality tour of the bars and restaurants along one Austin street. It worked like visual augmented reality, but with sound instead of a heads-up display: you look at a building and tap a touchpad on your temple, and they offer a sentence or two about what’s inside. The locations weren’t very precise, and it occasionally told me about things that were toward the edge of my field of view, instead of what I was trying to look at. But it was close enough to seem basically accurate — like having someone walking beside you and pointing out landmarks.
I’m not sure exactly how precise developers can make this tracking. Carvajal told me that Bose AR could probably tell when you were looking at a specific statue in a park, for instance, but not a small plaque on a wall. It’s not as ambitious as phone- and glasses-based AR projects that “pin” virtual objects to extremely specific locations. Bose AR probably couldn’t support something like translating a specific sign in real time, unless a hardware manufacturer adds a camera, which generally opens up a lot of new problems.
That said, there actually was a language app for the QC3X headphones. It offered a few French or Spanish phrases when I looked at a subway or hotel — or at SXSW, beacons simulating those things. Voice recognition let me give it commands, or repeat phrases and get feedback. (I am, it turns out, very bad at French.)
One demo offered a more everyday use case. Again with headphones, I chose between several playlists by turning my head, as though they were physical objects laid out in front of me. Directional sound faded in and out as I looked in different directions. When I went to “work” and “the gym” (represented here by Bluetooth beacons, located close together for convenience) it would ask if I wanted to change my playlist, and automatically adjust sound settings like noise cancellation levels. Headphone companies like Bragi are already using gesture controls, but Bose AR seems like it could offer more sophisticated options.
Bose AR’s usefulness will depend on what developers do with it, and hearing somebody talk to you doesn’t feel as amazingly high-tech as looking at a hologram. But depending on how much the system costs, it offers a fresh and low-risk way of thinking about augmented reality. It could also easily complement a visual display since visual and audio AR both depend on understanding motion and location. For now, it’s just a pair of AR glasses that don’t look ridiculous — which is still a rare achievement.
Update 3PM ET: A Bose spokesperson says a previous representative’s statement that the company planned to sell a self-branded commercial version of its glasses was incorrect. Plans currently only include Bose development kits and partner devices.