Headphones or invisible speakers that only you can hear: is this the future of (smartphone) audio?


It doesn’t happen often, but every once in a while we see a tech product that changes our perspective on something we’ve always been used to doing in a way, showing us an alternative that might seem weird… au start.

Sure, smartphones are at the forefront of the most recent technological revolution, but wearables have quietly made 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 so far as to say that it changed the world. And in a way, he did.

The Bluetooth connection, named after the 10th century Danish king, Harald Bluetooth, first appeared in 1999, but it wasn’t until around five years later that the first wireless Bluetooth headphones hit the market. This played the most important role in making wearing headphones a more comfortable and hassle-free experience, which we enjoy until today.

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

And then we all know how the courage of Apple helped the company remove the headphone jack from the iPhone 7 in 2017. Interestingly, what changed everything was not the problem but rather the solution that Apple created (and sold). And we call it… AirPods (sorry). No need to explain – AirPods are now the most popular headphones on the planet.

Noveto N1: Welcome “invisible headphones”

Corn! What if you don’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 home and office life through advanced audio technologies, is now making “invisible headphones” a thing !

The whole concept was developed and introduced some time ago, but it is finally coming to fruition. The company refers to Noveto Audio technology as “a third way to listen”. I thought that was what men practiced in long-term relationships. Turns out I’m wrong.

How it works

the Noveto audio technology uses inaudible (to the human ear) sound waves (ultrasound) and beamforming, which focus the signal in a specific direction. This direction? Right in front of your ears. You know – your earbuds. Acoustic waves are pushed through the air via Noveto’s proprietary transducer array, which is controlled by Noveto’s patented chipset and software – this is essentially where the sound comes 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/ear position at all times. This brings some impressive benefits:

  • 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 on-ear headphones/headphones, which are known to escape the sound. The company says people who are about 1m/3ft away will only hear a whisper if you’re on a video call.
  • The technology is capable of creating a 3D spatial audio effect, where it can direct sound anywhere in space, depending on the movement of your head. If that sounds familiar, that’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 so sound can be placed virtually anywhere in 3D space. This is particularly impressive when watching a movie. You will be able to hear sounds in front of you, to the sides, to the rear, above, etc. It’s similar to Dolby Atmos cinemas, but in an even more immersive way since the sound is right in your ears, meaning it’s much more focused and immersive.

If that wasn’t enough, Noveto promises AI-powered voice, face, and gesture controls. Voice recognition will also integrate Amazon’s Alexa virtual assistant. Facial recognition will (obviously) be made possible via the onboard camera, but it’s “gesture controls” that take a more interesting approach to interacting with the soundbar-like creation.

Possible applications of Noveto’s “invisible helmets”

  • Watch TV in bed without disturbing people around you – you won’t wake anyone up
  • Use navigation in your car or just take a call without any distractions – will require car integration
  • Live translation – where two people communicate in two different languages ​​and receive a live translation directly 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 “cool” ways to ignore those around you (social disinterest)
  • Potentially expensive at launch, although the tech doesn’t seem particularly expensive

When will you receive “Invisible Headphones/Earbuds” for your iPhone or Android phone?

I don’t know for you, but the moment I seeing what the Noveto N1 can do, I immediately started considering a possible smartphone twist on “invisible headphones”. I mean, technically you would be able to connect the N1 to a smartphone via Bluetooth, but of course you can’t take it outside. Ultrasound is not something new for smartphones. Thanks to Qualcomm, we already have fingerprint sensors capable of projecting sound waves into your finger; map your fingerprint and use it to unlock your phone.

Of course, when it comes to the Noveto N1, we’re talking about a completely different beast. The first step to giving your iPhone or Android phone “invisible” AirPods (a very apt name by the way) would be miniaturization.

Miniaturization occurs when manufacturers make larger pieces of mechanical, optical and electronic hardware, 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 from small bits of hardware. Of course, we have a big soundbar here that should shrink down to a chip the size of a chicken nugget.

Fortunately, smartphones already have some of the general and motion-sensing technologies that make the Noveto N1 work: Bluetooth, advanced camera systems, and very powerful and intelligent processors that include machine learning. Think 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 consider myself an “invisible helmet” engineer, I do know that things like the 1-inch camera sensor, ultrasonic fingerprint reader, and super-advanced facial recognition hardware were also things that we didn’t see coming about 5-10 years ago. Now we have them.

Additionally, companies like Google already has expertise in using ultrasound in consumer technology products. Examples are the Nest Hub and its different versions. Google calls it “Ultrasonic Detection”. Interestingly, the technology was developed to help elderly Nest Hub users with reduced vision after Google product manager Ashton Udall saw his 74-year-old father approach the device to read the screen because he couldn’t see it from a distance.

While a regular Joe like me should have gone screen reading for his grandmother, Udall has the willpower and engineering expertise of a multi-billion dollar company, so he worked to implement the ultrasonic technology in the Nest.

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

Although the use case scenarios are many, I don’t think so. For the record, I don’t think any real headphones will be built in either – we’ve seen such wild concepts circulating on Twitter. But would I be super excited to give Noveto’s “invisible headphones” a boost so that they become mainstream one day? Totally.

Even the idea of ​​using technology within the confines of the home sounds pretty exciting to me. As mentioned earlier, you’ll 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 is expected to go on sale in the second quarter 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.

Pro Tip: If you want “invisible headphones” when you’re in bed, just slip your phone under your pillow and place your ear directly over the speaker. The pillow works like a mitt and pretty much lets you hear your audio without disturbing those around you.

Disclaimer: The author takes no responsibility if you suddenly start to “look silly” to your partner. Maybe buy a Noveto N1? Or a new partner? Uh.


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