Back in 2013 a Danish designer named Nikolaj Hviid took his prototype of wireless earbuds to Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino, Calif. to get some feedback. He then spent most of his meeting listening to someone tell him why his wireless earbuds couldn’t be done.
Hviid wasn’t swayed. When Apple announced three years later in Sept. 2016 that it was introducing its own wireless earbuds, called AirPods, he’d already been shipping The Dash for six months. The $230 wireless earbuds counted steps, heart rate and could activate a phone’s digital assistant.
But people are still telling Hviid that his vision won’t work.
“A month ago I had a business meeting with someone who thought I was presenting a concept, not a finished product,” he says from his office in Munich, Germany where his startup Bragi, a maker of wireless earbuds, is headquartered.
When the engineer didn’t believe he’d really made The Dash earphones, Hviid took out a box and put it on the table. “We’ve sold more than 100,000 0f these,” he told him.
The engineer still wasn’t convinced. “You’ll never be able to get it to work right.”
There are, indeed, some big kinks Bragi needs to iron out.
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Nearly a third of Amazon reviewers of The Dash have given the product just one star because of choppy bluetooth connectivity when playing music or making a call.
Wearable tech is a tough business that does not forgive these kinds of flaws. Many of the big names behind wrist gadgets are winding down some or all of their operations because they’ve struggled to convince consumers their products are necessary. Smartwatch maker Pebble sold to Fitbit, Fitbit’s share price has plummeted since its IPO, and Jawbone may be getting ready to ditch the consumer business.
But Bragi — whose name derives from the Norse gatekeeper to mythical Valhalla — thinks its wireless earbuds will be different. In January 2017 Bragi started shipping its latest product, The Headphone, a simpler alternative to the Dash. All it does is play audio, and it has much more stable bluetooth connectivity.
Hviid won’t reveal revenue figures but his startup has raised $35 million from mostly private investors, enabling him to hire 180 people in Munich, Hong Kong, Chicago and New York.
Investors have good reason to be sniffing around. 2016 was “a huge leap for wireless headphones,” according to FORBES contributor Ian Morris, who believes Apple’s AirPods were crucial to giving the market a boost.
Among the competitors, and there are plenty: Samsung’s Gear IconX, Motorola’s VerveOnes, the $300 Erato Apollo 7, the $99 Jabees BTWins and the $50 Axgio Dash. (Click the links for reviews on the latter three by FORBES contributor Ben Sin.)
There are few reviews of Apple’s AirPods, but Geoffrey Fowler of The Wall Street Journal wore them for three months last year, and said that while they “look weird,” they’re “Apple’s best new product in years.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, Hviid disagrees. He can’t get over that one-inch, goofy-looking stick that hangs down from each AirPod.
“I wouldn’t have made [them],” he says.
Apple was understandably trying to get the bluetooth antenna and microphone “as far away from the inner ear as possible,” he says. “But when I made my product, I wanted a discreet product, not an in-your-face product.”
That’s a fair point. Despite the remarkable technology behind Google Glass, the product ultimately flopped because it looked weird on people’s faces.
Nearly all other wireless earbud competitors are designed like Bragi, as a simple, round object. Bragi’s Dash and Headphone are subtler than the AirPods, but like any of its peers not truly discreet. There’s clearly a pair of black objects in your ear when you’re wearing them.
Hviid argues that the AirPod sticks show Apple capitulated to an engineering problem it couldn’t solve, and that Bragi has solved it (though some of those Amazon reviewers might disagree). Hviid avoids detail on how, only saying he’s been making wireless earphones for “a lot longer” than Apple. “The difference is we are now a second generation product.”
One thing Hviid is certain about is that mainstream consumers will adopt wireless earphones quickly. “The vast majority of headphones being sold in 2017 and 2018 will be wireless,” he says, citing a historical precedent: those old TV’s that had cable-connected remotes in the 1980’s. All of a sudden, “within two years, not one single remote had a cable.”
How might the Dash evolve? Future generations could eventually get their own SIM card so they don’t need to be tethered to a smartphone, Hviid says. Some smartwatches like Samsung’s Gear, have already taken that step. These gadgets, along with the Amazon Echo, are a “fourth-generation computing device that surrounds you, an ambient computer.”
That means gadgets like The Dash need to become smarter at recognizing what’s happening to its wearer at any given time. Ask Siri for “help” when you’re standing on a mountain versus when you’re sitting in front of a computer, and it’ll require a vastly different set of algorithms.
For now, ambient computing is held back by a lack of sensors. Even the most enthusiastic wearable gadget owner is limited to something on their wrist, in there pocket and maybe in their ear. Hviid is thinking past that. “In some years you’ll have a computer in your button, in your shoe, in your belt,” he say. “And if you go further in 30 or 40 years you’ll spray nano computers on you or eat them.”
“The biggest challenge moving forward is not how powerful the processor is, but how you use it,” says Hviid. “It’s the user interface that’s going to be the challenge.”
Bragi is already experimenting with taking some of the controls for the Dash off the earbuds, and onto the body, with a software update that allows you to tap the side of your face to activate your phone’s digital assistant. The feature is still in beta and while it’s said to work fine indoors, it doesn’t get picked up very well outside.
Hviid wants his customers to be able to use gestures they already use in every day life. If you get a phone call while wearing the Dash, you should be able to nod your head to accept it or shake your head to reject it, he says.
For now Bragi seems to have finally got the basics down with audio on The Headphone. But it needs to iron out those technical kinks on The Dash, particularly when it comes to bluetooth, if it really wants to keep ahead of Apple in making a smart, contextually aware “in-ear computer,” as Hviid describes it.
If it can do that and develop innovative gestures too, Bragi could remain an even stronger challenger to Apple and those other larger competitors.