Are headphones a "solved" design problem? I think that they are—at least for the first 30 minutes of use. I own what I consider to be the best, most comfortable headphones I can afford, one "can" style, the other earbuds. But when I use either for more than a half hour, the cans grow clammy and the buds grow irritating.
Now two companies, one established and one upstart, are venturing into the area of off-the-ear headphone designs. Sony's new Future Lab Program, an experimental initiative that uses technology to "co-create new lifestyles and user value," has come up with a set of headphones that look less like cans and more like the St. Louis Arch.
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They're calling the prototype "Concept N," and the idea is that tiny speakers embedded in the tips can shoot audio up into the vicinity of your ears, "allowing the user to receive audio information without having to insert any object into his or her ear." They're controlled via voice recognition and an internal microphone. While they do have a working prototype that was on show at SXSW, they haven't released much information on them to the public, save for this abstract video demonstrating how the concept is supposed to feel:
An alternative approach has been created by Tokyo-based musician and inventor Yazz Imamura in the form of his Vie Shair headphones. Although they're can-style, they feature a 3D-printed matrix that attaches to the cans and contacts the end user's skull around the ear, so that the cans don't actually touch your Dumbos. This allows air flow, preventing clamminess, while still directing the sound to where it needs to go.
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Here's how they're meant to work:
The music-sharing feature seems a bit odd to me, and having lived in Japan previously, seems very Japanese; I can totally see a group of people in that country all willing to don these headphones in order to throw a party that won't disturb the next door neighbors. But frankly speaking I cannot imagine us inconsiderate Americans taking the trouble.
There's no word on whether Sony's Concept N will make it to market, but Imamura is earnestly trying to get the Vie Shairs into production. At press time he'd garnered $78,000-plus in Kickstarter pledges towards a $150,000 goal, and there was still more than a month left to pledge.