Smartphones

Invisible headphones or speakers only you can hear: Is this the future of (smartphone) audio? – PhoneArena


Noveto

It doesn’t happen often, but every now and then, we see a tech product that changes our perspective on something we’ve always been used to doing in one way, showing us an alternative that might come across as bizarre… at first.

Of course, smartphones are at the forefront of the most recent technological revolution, but wearables have quietly been making remarkable and steady progress, which is why here at PhoneArena, we choose not to ignore them.

It’s safe to say that Sony’s Walkman forever changed the way we listen to music. Some might go as far as to say it changed the world. And in a way, it did.

The Bluetooth connection, named after the 10th-century Danish king, Harald Bluetooth, came along in 1999, but it wasn’t until about five years later when the first wireless Bluetooth headphones hit the market. This played the biggest role in making wearing headphones a more comfortable and hassle-free experience, which we have come to appreciate until today.

Of course, another major leap for audio was when the iPod merged with the phone back in 2007 to make… the iPhone. “An iPod… a phone… and an internet communicator…” Sounds familiar? I think Nelson Mandela said that.

And then we all know how Apple’s courage helped the company remove the iPhone 7’s headphone jack in 2017. Interestingly, what changed everything wasn’t the problem but rather the solution that Apple created (and sold). And we’re calling it… AirPods (sorry). No need to explain – AirPods are now the most popular earbuds on the planet.

Noveto N1: Welcome “invisible headphones”

But! But what if you didn’t need anything to listen to music privately? I was just as shocked as you probably are, but Noveto, a German company committed to transforming smart living at home and in the office through advanced audio technologies, now makes “invisible headphones” a thing!

The whole concept was developed and introduced a while ago, but it’s finally coming to fruition. The company refers to the Noveto Audio Technology as “a third way of listening”. I thought that was what men in long-term relationships practised. Turns out I’m wrong.

How it works

The Noveto Audio Technology uses non-audible (to the human ear) acoustic waves (ultrasonic) and beamforming, which focuses the signal in one specific direction. That direction? Right outside your ears. You know – your earcups. The acoustic waves are pushed into the air via the Proprietary Noveto Transducer Array, which is controlled by Noveto’s patented chipset and software – this is essentially where the sound is coming from.

The SoundBeamer 1.0 uses Bluetooth to connect to your devices as well as 3D sensing technology and a built-in camera to locate and track your head/ears’ position at all times. This brings along a few awesome perks:

  • The sound remains relatively private. Noveto says, “someone next to you will only hear 10% of what you hear”, which isn’t too different from a regular pair of loud earbuds/ on-ear headphones, which are known to leak sound. The company says people who are about 1m/3ft away will only hear a whisper if you are on a video call.
  • The technology is capable of creating a 3D spatial audio effect, where it can point sound anywhere in space, according to your head movement. If this sounds familiar, it’s because Apple made the same Spatial Audio feature possible by pushing an update to the AirPods Pro and AirPods Max.

Spatial audio takes ordinary stereo and filters it in such a way so that sound can be placed virtually anywhere in 3D space. It’s especially impressive when watching a movie. You’ll be able to hear sounds from in front of you, from the sides, rear, above, etc. It’s similar to Dolby Atmos theatres, but in a way even more immersive since the sound is right in your ears, meaning it’s much more concentrated and immersive.

If that wasn’t enough, Noveto promises AI-based voice, facial, and gesture controls. Voice recognition will also integrate Amazon’s Alexa virtual assistant. Face-recognition will (obviously) be made possible via the camera on board, but it’s the “gesture controls” that utilize a more interesting approach to interacting with the soundbar-looking creation.

Possible applications of Noveto’s “invisible headphones”

  • Watching TV in bed without disturbing the people around you – you won’t wake anyone up
  • Using navigation in your car or simply taking a call without any distractions – will require car integration
  • Live translation – where two people communicate in two different languages and get live translation streamed right in their ear

Potential challenges with Noveto N1:

  • Limited range of motion – the current implementation won’t really allow you to leave the room or exercise while still being able to get clean audio streaming into your ears
  • Even more “great” ways to ignore those around you (social uninterest)
  • Potentially pricey at launch, although the tech doesn’t appear particularly expensive

When will you get “invisible headphones/earbuds” for your iPhone or Android phone?

I don’t know about you, but the moment I saw what the Noveto N1 can do, I immediately started contemplating a potential smartphone twist on the “invisible headphones”. I mean, technically you’d be able to connect the N1 to a smartphone via Bluetooth, but of course you won’t be able to take it outside.Ultrasound isn’t something new to smartphones. Thanks to Qualcomm, we already have fingerprint sensors that can blast soundwaves into your finger; map your thumbprint, and use it to unlock your phone.

Of course, when it comes to the Noveto N1, we are talking a completely different beast. The first step towards giving your iPhone or Android phone “invisible” AirPods (a very suitable name btw) would be miniaturization.

Miniaturization is when manufacturers make bigger mechanical, optical, and electronic hardware parts small and then even smaller in order to fit them into smartphones, tablets, laptops, smartwatches, etc.

Well, Moore’s law considers exactly the process of getting more power out of smaller bits of hardware. Of course, here we have a big soundbar that would need to shrink down to a chicken nugget size chip.

Luckily, smartphones already have some of the general and motion-sensing tech that makes the Noveto N1 work: Bluetooth, advanced camera systems, and very powerful and smart processors that include machine learning. Think about phones like the Pixel 4 with Project Soli, the iPhone with its complicated Face ID system, and (again) the Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S22 flagships with ultrasonic fingerprint readers.

While I don’t fancy myself an “invisible headphones” engineer, I know that things like the 1-inch camera sensor, ultrasonic fingerprint reader, and super-advanced face recognition hardware also were things we didn’t see coming some 5-10 years ago. Now we have them.

Furthermore, companies like Google already have expertise in using ultrasonic in consumer tech products. Examples of that are the Nest Hub and its various versions. Google calls it “Ultrasound sensing”. Interestingly, the tech was developed to aid elderly Nest Hub users with reduced vision after Google’s Product Manager, Ashton Udall, saw his 74-year-old father walking up to the device to read the screen because he couldn’t see it from afar.

While a regular Joe like me would’ve had to go and read the screen for his grandma, Udall boasts the will and engineering expertise of a multibillion-dollar company, so he worked to implement ultrasonic tech into the Nest.

In the end: Will your 2022 or 2023 smartphone get built-in “invisible earbuds”?

Although the use case scenarios would be plenty, I don’t think so. For the record, I also don’t think it will get actual earbuds built into it – we’ve seen such wild concepts circulating on Twitter. But would I be super pumped to give Noveto’s “invisible headphones” a go and root for it to one day go mainstream? Totally.

Even the idea of using the tech within the boundaries of the house seems exciting enough for me. As mentioned earlier, you’d be able to connect any Bluetooth-enabled device to play audio, so your phone, iPad, and TV are all in the equation.   

You can find demos of how the Noveto N1 works on the company’s YouTube channel, Noveto Systems. The Noveto N1 should go on sale in Q2 of 2022. We don’t know the price yet, but it’s safe to assume it won’t be as much as a pair of AirPods.

ProTip: If you want “invisible headphones” when in bed, simply tuck your phone underneath your pillow and position your ear right on the speaker. The pillow works as a muffle and just about lets you hear your audio without disturbing the ones around.

Disclaimer: The author bears no responsibility if you suddenly start “looking dorky” in the eyes of your partner. Maybe get a Noveto N1? Or a new partner? Duh.



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