The “Transparency” feature of the newly-released Apple AirPod Pro grabbed my attention. The claim from Apple is that Transparency is “for hearing what’s happening around you” — it “lets outside sound in, and allows things to sound and feel natural when you’re talking to people nearby”.
Even before the launch of AirPod Pro, I had noticed that many people would engage in conversations with their AirPods in. Maybe not long conversations, and people wouldn’t sit in meetings with them on the whole time, but (purely anecdotally) I felt like I would see a lot of people having a chat while still with their headphones in.
It has felt like the usual social stigma of talking to people with your headphones still on was fading a little bit. When I’m wandering around with headphones on, I’ll usually take at least one ear out to make it clear to whoever I’m speaking to that they have my attention.
But Transparency changes the entire game. Instead of assuming that people with headphones in are blissfully unaware of your existence, lost in their own world of music or podcasts or conference calls, we can now wonder if they’re in Transparency mode and actually hyper-conscious of what you’re saying to them, because all the background noises are being stripped out.
This sounds awesome in many contexts. As someone hitting the “middle aged” milestone, I often find it frustrating being in noisy environments and trying to have a conversation. The idea of being able to pop in headphones and have filter out the background noises so I can better hear the people near me talk is appealing.
(It should be acknowledged that Apple weren’t the first ones to come up with this idea. Bose has had conversation-enhancing technology for a while; there might be other vendors with similar technology.)
One of the big challenges though for this sort of technology, however, is the fact that people would generally be self-conscious wearing augmentation hardware in many environments, both social and professional. Think about things like hearing aids and glasses — for many people the vanity issues of these devices, despite being super common and well-established in society, have prevented them from taking them up, often to their own significant detriment.
The cost of traditional hearing aids can also be a big factor. If they’re not accessible on your insurance, they might simply be unaffordable — the top models often run into the thousands. While the AirPod Pros are expensive, they might be “good enough” for many users when compared with the expense of hearing aids — cherry picking a single example from the Bose site:
Think about Google Glass and the “glasshole” phenomenon. I was super excited when I first heard about this project. I only ever met one person who was wearing them; while it was weird talking to him wondering what was going on, I still confess to being more nerdishly fascinated by the possibilities than thinking about the implications for those around me (let alone what I’d look like wearing them). The possibilities of a great AR platform have become far more interesting to me than Virtual Reality — even from a video gaming perspective, it feels like in the foreseeable future, there are a lot more fun opportunities in AR than VR.
But Google never really nailed Glass as a platform for the average person on the street and the project was relegated to specific commercial/industrial uses. The backlash against them blew up into all sorts of weird places as society wrestled with the Glasshole Problem, which reportedly triggered physical confrontations and resulted in businesses creating policies to deny service to customers wearing them.
With the recent report that Apple is considering Augmented Reality (AR) smart glasses, it’s easy to start thinking of the AirPod Pro as a way for Apple to test the waters in terms of normalising technological augmentations — headphones and glasses — by making them Cool.
To really drive the mass adoption of AR to the level of smartphones, it will be critical to make the experience of wearing AR hardware not only technically excellent, but also Cool enough so that people are comfortable wearing them regularly.
Apple have done more to make technology Cool than any other company. The iPod set the scene by normalising interaction of music with your computer. The iPhone transformed the world with the smartphone revolution. (I remember being asked by many people, prior to its launch in the Windows Mobile/PocketPC era, “why would you want to check your email on your phone?”, an attitude which is now so far removed from reality it’s hard to even believe it once existed).
More recently, the Apple Watch has set a new standard for fashioned-based technology. They are clearly the dominant wearable; as with many other Apple devices, despite a lot of naysayers being critical of the devices, they have had a massive impact on how people see and use hardware.
The AirPod Pro has the potential to change the way people think about other hardware augmentations that are more obviously visible in your regular interactions with other people. It seems unlikely they’ll offer a variety of colours so they’re more readily thought of as fashion accessories — the white stems poking out of the ears just seems like it has brand recognition that is too good to pass up on.
But if they can get people used to conversing with people with AirPods plugged into their ears in a variety of normal circumstances — in bars, in meetings, in conversations walking down the street —it is a powerful step along the way to adjusting the expectations of the entire planet in terms of other hardware augmentations.
And if there’s any company that can make wearing high-tech nerd computer glasses cool — it’s Apple.
Their growing, evolving knowledge on how to make consumer devices that combine fashion and technology (both software and hardware) to create a unified product that resonates with people means they are uniquely positioned to effect another paradigm shift in terms of wearable computing when it comes to AR. They might be the first company to finally make a product that people feel comfortable enough to wear enough of the time to make them genuinely useful.
First published on Medium.