Future of interfaces: AirPods

Apple AirPods (image © Apple).

I am a regular user of headphones of various kinds, both wired and wireless, closed and open, with noise cancellation, and without. The latest piece of this technology I invested in are the “AirPods” by Apple.

Externally, these things are almost comically similar to the standard “EarPods” they provide with, or as the upgrade option for their mobile devices. The classic white Apple design is there, just the cord has been cut, leaving the connector stems protruding from the user ears, like small antennas (which they probably also indeed are, as well as directional microphone arms).

There are wireless headphone-microphone sets that have slightly better sound quality (even if AirPods are perfectly decent as wireless earbuds), or even more neutral design. What is here interesting in one part is the “seamless” user experience which Apple has invested in – and the “artificial intelligence” Siri assistant which is another key part of the AirPod concept.

The user experience of AirPods is superior to any other headphones I have tested, which is related to the way the small and light AirPods immediatelly connect with the Apple iPhones, detect when they are placed into the ear, or or not, and work hours on one charge – and quickly recharge after a short session inside their stylishly designed, smart battery case. These things “just work”, in the spirit of original Apple philosophy. In order to achieve this, Apple has managed to create a seamless combination of tiny sensors, battery technology, and a dedicated “W1 chip” which manages the wireless functionalities of AirPods.

The integration with Siri assistant is the other key part of AirPod concept, and the one that probably divides user’s views more than any other feature. A double tap to the side of an AirPod activates Siri, which can indeed understand short commands in multiple languages, and respond to them, carrying out even simple conversations with the user. Talking to an invisible assistant is not, however, part of today’s mobile user cultures – even if Spike Jonze’s film “Her” (2013) shows that the idea is certainly floating around today. Still, mobile devices are often used while on the move, in public places, in buses, trains or in airplanes, and it is just not feasible nor socially acceptable that people carry out constant conversations with their invisible assistants in this kind of environments – not yet today, at least.

Regardless of this, Apple AirPods are actually to a certain degree designed to rely on such constant conversations, which both makes them futuristic and ambitious, but also a rather controversial piece of design and engineering. Most notably, there are no physical buttons or other ways for adjusting volume in these headphones: you just double tap to the side of AirPods, and verbally tell Siri to turn the volume up, or down. This mostly works just fine, Siri does the j0b, but a small touch control gesture would be just so much more user friendly.

There is something engaging in testing Siri with the AirPods, nevertheless. I did find myself walking around the neighborhood, talking to the air, and testing what Siri can do. There are already dozens of commands and actions that can be activated with the help of AirPods and Siri (there is no official listing, but examples are given in lists like this one: https://www.cnet.com/how-to/the-complete-list-of-siri-commands/). The abilities of Siri still fall short in many areas, it did not completely understand Finnish I used in my testing, and the integration of third party apps is often limited, which is a real bottleneck, as these apps are what most of us are using our mobile devices for, most of the time. Actually, Google and the assistant they have in Android is better than Siri in many areas relevant for daily life (maps, traffic information, for example), but the user experience of their assistant is not yet as seamless or integrated whole as that of Apple’s Siri is.

All this considered, using AirPods is certainly another step into the general developmental direction where pervasive computing, AI, conversational interfaces and augmented reality are taking us, in good or bad. Well worth checking out, at least – for more in Apple’s own pages, see: http://www.apple.com/airpods/.

On Bluetooth Headphones: The Case of Bose QC35

2016-06-28 11.45.18 (2)Enjoying music of all kinds home and on the road (and, at summertime, at the beach / in nature), I have been interested in mobile audio solutions (though not in any religious or “serious audiophile” manner, luckily for my wallet). At homes, my headphones are AKG K550, which are very analytical, crystal clean-sounding, closed-back German headphones, featuring 50 mm drivers and weight of 305 grams. I have attempted to travel with these things, but they are just not designed for travel, they are large and do not fold into any compact proportions. Also, long and thick cable is real hassle when you move from train to airport to bus, etc. Thus, to travel headphones.

In travel, everything is a compromise, in this case primarily between portability, size, weight, and features. Currently, I have settled into three-tier approach. In daily life, I always carry Apple EarPods with Remote and Mic: these are better than most light, in-ear headphones, but they do not isolate the user from the environment sounds, and they also play nicely with my iPhone 6 Plus apps for making phone calls and having those Skype meetings.

The second tier is currently occupied by Bose QuietComfort 20, which are a pair of in-ear noise cancelling headphones that are perfect for that short flight or other day-trip with only light hand luggage. It has well-designed “StayHear+” style silicone tips that happen to fit my ears perfectly (there are three sizes). These are the most efficient noise cancelling headphones I have tried. In everyday use they might even be a bit too efficient: the user is just enjoying blissful silence, even if directly addressed or discussed around you. You will not hear a thing. There is a specific “Aware Mode” button that you need to press, in order to get some ambient sounds through. Also, this is a wired system, so the cable will catch and occasionally tangle with the straps of your laptop bag and elsewhere.

And here comes the third tier, the more demanding mobile use and the solution provided by the new wireless, Bluetooth headphones by Bose: QuietComfort 35. These are bit on the larger size, so I would not probably always pack them with me on short trips, but on longer travels this is an excellent choice. The noise cancelling is very good, but not quite as efficient as that on QC20, since these are an on-ear model rather than a completely isolating in-ear ones – but in many situations that is even preferable. And the sound quality is excellent. There are probably some aspects that a real audiophile expect could criticize (there always are), but What Hifi? magazine reviewer for example gave them five stars. These have a rechargeable lithium ion battery that promises circa 20 hours of power, and after that it is possible to connect a cable and continue in wired mode, without noise cancellation. There is also the ability to connect to multiple (two simultaneously) Bluetooth devices, so that one can take that call from the work phone, while listing to music from the laptop or iPad (I have not tested this yet, I am currently on summer vacation). Pairing can be done with NFC, by touching, and there is a Bose Connect app for smartphones (iOS and Android) that can be used to managing paired devices, changing battery status, and setting sleep timer, for example. When power is turned on, the headphones use voice synthesis to speak aloud the battery level and device name they are currently connected with. Handy. The weight is 309 grams, so this is not the most light-weight option, but wearing QC35 feels comfortable. Testing with different music styles, I was particularly impressed how QC35 handled the “Silent Night” album by Tapani Rinne – with its mixture of deep-bass electronica and quiet, soft acoustic tunes, this is a very challenging recording, and the clear soundscape and powerful dynamics of QC35 really let this kind of music shine.