Augmented Reality: Audio?

Virtual and Augmented Reality are the buzzwords going around these days. While they aren’t necessarily aiming for the same goals, they aren’t mutually exclusive either. While virtual reality has a lot of potential in certain areas, especially gaming, I’m more excited for the potential offered with augmented reality.

Augmented reality (AR) has gotten more attention in recent years when Microsoft announced the HoloLens, possibly the best glimpse at the potential of AR today. The broad concept is that the headset can overlay visuals on top of your existing field of vision, giving a “mixed reality” as it has been often called. There’s a ton of unlocked potential here, as you could have notifications just at the edge of your field of vision, overlay information on local hotspots, show directions right in front of you or even display useful information about people you’re interacting with based on their social profile. The possibilities are limitless really, these are just a few simple examples.

While visual overlays are one really useful aspect of AR, it still seems like we’re a ways off from this type of “reality” coming true. The HoloLens is still a huge headset that is far from practical to take with you on the go. Instead, I’m curious to see where the audio side of AR can take us. We are already seeing examples of such technology in small packages, such as the Here One by Doppler Labs.

The Here One goes beyond being just wireless headphones by allowing you to blend the sound around you in various ways. You can tune the sound of the world around you in or out as you please, either manually or with presets. This would be particularly handy for things like riding the subway, where a preset allows you to tune the subway noise out while still hearing the conversation you’re having with the person next to you. Tuning out noises around you could definitely have some benefits, but the Here One also offers some other (admittedly less practical) options like adding echo effects to the sounds around you. This may not seem too useful, but it’s another example of ways you can augment audio.

Beyond the above examples, audio will be incredibly important to properly push the visual side of AR too. In many ways, we need to first perfect the audio platform before visual AR will be useful. It’s easy to watch videos showcasing some amazing things video AR will make possible, but ultimately the combination of audio feedback as well as a useful listening platform (think “digital assistants”).

The listening platform is more than just about having software that can understand the user, though. There are many facets to it, including good hardware that can hear the user properly, software that can convert speech to text, text to commands and ultimately, provide the user with an experience that makes AR more than just a gimmick. This is where it will be interesting to watch the big picture that is “augmented reality” in whatever forms that ultimately takes.

It will likely take more than one innovation to sell people on AR, and audio may be the piece people aren’t paying attention to that ends up playing a key role in the whole picture.


Aaron Dippner

Software engineer who loves to nerd out about technology, home automation, gadgets and everything else.

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