Augmented-reality devices are developing faster and more intelligently than ever, with big brands and start-ups keen to get involved

Imagine having a volume button for the world – a selective one, built to “turn down” life’s annoyances – howling babies silenced with a button press; the rumble of traffic reduced to a distant hum. It is all done via a pair of hi-tech earbuds controlled by a smartphone app that “edits out” unwanted sounds, without leaving people deaf to things that they DO need to hear, such as a blaring horn of a car bearing down on them, or a friend talking nearby.

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Doppler Labs CEO Noah Kraft describes his Here earbuds as the first “augmented audio” – or, in Kraft’s own phrase – “bionic hearing” . The computerised headset listens for certain frequencies so that you can, for instance, “turn up” someone’s voice if you’re talking in a loud environment. You can also add an echo or enhance the sound of the bass if you are listening to music.


“Reality isn’t half bad,” says Kraft. “If we can enhance it and optimise it a little bit, that could be a really cool thing.” The current version, which was funded via crowdfunding – with backers paying $180 (£120) each – is aimed at musicians and high-end audio fans. Using external microphones, and an app to “tune” the audio, the Here works like a hi-tech version of the earbuds many music fans wear to concerts. It’s designed to add subtle “tweaks” to what people hear, altering reality in real-time, using an app.


Other start-ups, such as Nuheara, aim to do the same, but for phone calls and conversations with computers, using computer processing to tweak sound in real time. Their creators are keen to emphasise that these are no mere speakers. Nuheara founder David Cannington says: “The new crop of ear-oriented devices boast advancements such as sensors, intelligent use of microphones, audio-digital signal processing and smart battery miniaturisation – technologies more commonly associated with computers, not headsets.”


Information-projecting specs could catch on in the workplace, with Gartner predicting a tenfold growth over the next five years
But such audio augmented-reality devices are just the tip of the iceberg, with companies hoping to expand to glasses and headsets. Such visual augmented-reality systems are a staple of science fiction – think Geordi La Forge’s headset in Star Trek: The Next Generation, or the text scrolling before the Terminator’s eyes. But the technology has been slower to take off than, say, virtual reality headsets. Why?


Augmented reality is simply harder and more expensive to pull off, requiring cameras and microphones working in sync with computers to alter your reality second by second. But that does not mean the technology is going away. Microsoft’s HoloLens is built for what the Windows giant calls “mixed reality” and is shipping to developers early this year.


Early demos showed off a man building a Minecraft world with his hands, as if it was Lego. In Microsoft’s HoloStudio demo, people can “redecorate” their front rooms by inserting objects virtually without doing any heavy lifting.


And in education, it could be a genuine revolution. Microsoft showed off a demo where students could look inside the human body without dissecting corpses. Mark Griswold of Case Western Reserve University said: “The mixed reality of the HoloLens has the potential to revolutionise [medical] education by bringing 3D content into the real world. Using holograms, we can easily separate and focus in on individual systems.”


Even Google’s Glass is making a comeback, despite having fizzled out on its launch in the UK in 2013. This time, Google appears to be aiming at the workplace, with a new model titled “Enterprise Edition”. It’s understood that Google will target workplaces with the gadget – something that several other wearable technology companies are aiming at, with head-mounted displays showing warehouse workers, for instance, where to go next. Such information-projecting specs could catch on in the workplace, with market researchers Gartner predicting a tenfold growth over the next five years.


Professor Bob Stone, of the University of Birmingham, says: “Being able to physically manipulate virtual objects in the real world has been challenging scientists for 40 years. Since my first virtual reality experience at Nasa nearly 30 years ago, the technology has evolved from the primitive head-mounted displays and computers to today’s world, where we can interact with complex virtual objects, integrated in real-time, with real-world scenarios.”

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