The Annoying Future of Cell Phone Headsets
Pages: 1, 2, 3, 4

Always In, Always On

Nonetheless, I'm looking at wireless stereo headsets, and thinking that as they become more comfortable, more useful, more powerful, more commonplace, and more stylish, there will be fewer and fewer reasons to ever take them off. Eventually, you'll just stick them in your ears and forget about 'em.

They will become like acoustic contact lenses, or a heads-up display for your ears. They'll let you access and control a virtual audio reality that streams in from wireless networks all around you and is mixed with voice data from your phone and from everybody's phone. And although the ubiquitous audio network I'm describing does not yet exist, you can actually listen to what it might sound like today.

It's completely analogous to being in a recording studio, isolated by big headphones, auditioning multiple tracks, and talking to the control room via live mic. I remember my first time in a real studio: I put on the cans and was astounded by the sense of space, the detailed audio field, and the sound of my own voice — in my head, through the mixing board. Now imagine that feeling as a mobile experience, but instead of talking to the engineer on the other side of the glass, you're walking down Broadway, talking to someone on the other side of the world.

Back To the Future

So, how would that work in practice? Doctor, set the TARDIS to five years in the future! Now, it's the year 2012, and we are looking over the shoulder of Joe "TargetMarket" Consumer as he goes through his day.

First thing, of course, is coffee, and as Joe enjoys his morning brew, he unplugs his mobile device from the charger, puts on the headset, and checks news, weather, and sports, before getting his email. It's such a gorgeous morning that he does it all from his front porch, since he's got broadband connectivity everywhere he goes. He takes an extra moment to watch his favorite video blogger rant about President Obama's reelection.

During the commute to work, Joe checks the online catalog and notices that the new Spiderman game is available. A few button presses later, he's web-slinging his way uptown, enjoying the way the "thwip" sound seems to shoot out and away from his mobile device. But then the game pauses, and the Darth Vader theme plays incongruously, with a screen indicating an incoming call from his boss. Joe sends it to voice mail; he'll listen to it later.

While the game is paused, he selects the "gameplay music" menu item, which takes him to a submenu of his iTunes playlists. He notices a "recommended songs" option, and clicks it out of curiosity. An iTunes screen appears, displaying various playlists intended for use as background music during levels. The first one, of course, is the official movie soundtrack album, remixed for gameplay. Then there are popular DJ mixes of songs from the movie, a user-compiled collection of Swedish death metal and industrial goth, and some music written specifically for the game by a well-known composer.

Joe, being a purist, wirelessly downloads the movie score, and starts webbing up bad guys while grooving to the Danny Elfman theme. But only for a few more minutes, because now he's at the office, and logged into the corporate network. He works at his computer, listening to some deep house grooves, and talks on the phone, switching back and forth easily.

A friend stops by to gossip, so Joe turns his music off and turns on the external mic. His friend does the same thing with his headset, because he wants to show off the outrageous YouTube video everybody's talking about. The friend pulls out his phone, taps it a few times, and plays the video. The audio is streamed to both headsets, and about halfway through, Joe can clearly hear his friend say, "Here it comes!" An office worker passing by is startled when Joe and his friend suddenly, and for no apparent reason, laugh simultaneously.

After work, Joe gets a MySpace alert on his phone, telling him about a party his friends are going to. He uses the phone's built-in GPS locater to navigate to the venue. On the way, he passes by a group of kids, sitting on a stoop, all wearing matching headsets, all nodding in unison to a pounding beat only they can hear. It's a little surreal, but a common enough occurrence these days.

When Joe gets to the party, he finds a group of people playing an MMO tournament with folks in Saskatchewan, Seoul, and Stockholm. Each player is looking at his own device, but they (mostly) share the same audio experience. Joe joins the game, and when he makes a winning move, shouts, "Yeah!" — and opposing players all over the planet moan in dismay.

Later, he chats up a cute girl by noticing the illuminated quicksilver headset she's wearing. It reminds him of the in-ear monitors stage musicians wear, and she shows him how they glow and pulsate in response to the music she's listening to. Joe tunes his own headset to her frequency (with her permission, of course), and together they dance to a song only they can hear. Before he leaves, he takes her picture, enters her email and phone number into his phone's address book, and assigns her a ringtone of the song they were dancing to.

Annoying Audio

When he finally gets home, he watches a little late-night TV (streaming the sound to his headset, of course) before removing the earbuds to go to sleep. As he plugs the phone into the charger, he realizes he hadn't take his headset off once, all day.

Thank you for listening to my speculations about cell phone networks, hardware, and audio. I hope you found it informative (or at least entertaining). For more rants on interactive audio and mobile technology, check out the "Annoying Audio" blog.

Peter Drescher ("pdx") is a musician and composer with more than 25 years of performance experience. He has produced audio for games, the Web, and mobile devices, using his "Twittering Machine" project studio.

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