Bragi Dash Puts a New Kind of Computer In Your Ears
As Bragi CEO Nikolaj Hviid slides his personal pair of Dash earbuds across the table, he promises they’ve been properly cleaned. I open up the textured black box, and pull two earbuds out of their charging case. One goes in my right ear, the other in my left; there are no wires, there’s no power button. At first, I don’t put them on correctly, so Hviid reaches out and presses the right bud a little more snugly into my ear canal. It dings brightly—it’s connected. I reach out and tap once on my right ear. Adele’s “Hello” starts playing. It sounds fantastic.
The Dash felt, for a while there, like it was going to be too good to be true. Hviid and his team made a giant splash on Kickstarter with the promise of completely wireless “smart headphones,” which would not only play music but would also track your heart rate and oxygen saturation, channel ambient sound so you can hear the world around you, and let you control everything with simple gestures. It launched February 9th, 2014, and racked up more than $3 million in backer funding. Planned ship date: October, 2014.
Not so much. “I was slightly cocky going in,” Hviid admits now. He’s German, which he says means he tells it like it is. And here’s how it is: this thing is hard to make. It’s not like Hviid doesn’t have product experience—he’s the former design director for Harman Kardon, and has made products for Audi and others as well—but he underestimated how hard Dash would be. Now, though, after two and a half years of development, Bragi’s remarkable $299 earbuds are finished. They’re shipping to Kickstarter backers now, and the rest of the pre-orders are being filled a quickly as possible. Hviid has a picture on his phone of a giant palette of cardboard boxes, hundreds of Dashes inside. And he finally has a product he loves that he can demo.
We keep talking while I’m wearing the Dash, even while I’m listening to music. All it takes is a swipe forward on the left bud, and they flip from impressively isolating headphones to something more like a hearing aid. I could make Adele louder and Hviid softer, or just flip off the music and hear him almost normally. “Same thing as if you have a speaker in front of you,” he says. If it’s loud, you can’t hear much else. Then he starts clapping, though, and it’s perfectly audible. Hviid wants you to be able to hear with equal excellent your music, the world, and whatever instructions your Dash might be giving you.
That last bit is important. This is a device you’ll be interacting with, not just plugging in. The Dash is not a pair of headphones. Well, it is, but that’s like calling the iPhone a telephone. It’s not competing with devices like the Earins, or whatever truly wireless Beats headphones Apple’s working on for the iPhone 7. Dash is a computer, a platform, an entirely personalized object. “This is not a headphone with a taped-on heart-rate monitor that needs a phone to work,” Hviid says. “This is a computer that uses [lots of] sensors to understand context.” 23 of them, he says, in each ear. For instance: when you get a phone call, you can subtly shake your head to reject it or nod slightly to accept. If you’re on a conference call, Hviid wants to place everyone else in sort of a virtual room. “Everyone can speak while the other one speaks, and you’ll still be able to focus on whichever one you want.”
Our brains already do this processing work for us, discerning important noise from everything else. Hviid wants to apply it to technology: he’s obsessed with the idea that these audible interfaces can prevent us from looking at our phones so much. (This is a theme of newfangled technology at the moment.) Hviid’s case is that our visual focus is so narrow that we’re more or less exclusively aware of whatever we’re looking at. Our ears can process much more at once, and more quickly; you never need to look away from what you’re actually doing.
A Step Up From Bluetooth
The vision hasn’t changed for Bragi, but the product sure has. For most of the Dash’s development, Bragi used Bluetooth to connect the two buds to each other. But your water-filled head is where Bluetooth signals go to die. “They go three centimeters into the head,” Hviid says, “and then they stop.” He pauses, and laughs. “Physics is a bitch.” Bragi had an antenna supplier it thought could solve the problem, but the partner didn’t deliver. At the last minute, they switched to a technology called Near-Field Magnetic Induction, or NFMI. It’s been previously used mostly in hearing aids, but it uses a low-power magnetic field to transmit data. It works well, and with far less power, than Bluetooth. And all it took was convincing a semiconductor company called NXP to make what Bragi needed, and lots and lots and lots of testing and refining.
It let Bragi make an earbud that lasts three hours on a charge, though, without having it stick out of your ears. Twice during our meeting, Hviid clapped his hands over his ears, covering them like a scared child during a thunderstorm. “You have to be able to do this,” he says. They refused to make something that stuck awkwardly out of your head, “like a modern Teletubbie.” The Dash earbuds are hardly unnoticeable, but they’re much less conspicuous than the other “hearables” out there. They just look like…headphones. That works for Hviid.
The roadmap for Dash is long, and it’s not about music. Music is just a reason to buy them, to put them in your ears. Once you do, Bragi wants to help you hear the world better, to put an always-on personal assistant in your head, to use all those sensors to figure out where you are, what you’re doing, and how Bragi can help. They’re building macros, so you can use your body to control your technology—Hviid mentions jumping to go to the next song in your music, which somehow sounds simultaneously wonderful and terrible. Hviid’s own pair is kind of broken, actually, because “I’ve been doing some fun things to them.” They have all kinds of ideas, but they want to move slowly. This is a new thing, and they want people to get used to it at the right speed.
For the moment, they’ll settle for having a product they can sell. That their thousands of backers and pre-orderers can put in their ears and start to play with. That isn’t the vaporware too many Kickstarter projects and CES demos actually are. At long last, the Dash is real—and it’s great.