The Annoying Future of Cell Phone Headsets
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Bluetooth

But there's a basic problem with all of these units: the damn wires! They get tangled, they get unplugged, they pull on your ears, they limit your movement, and they're just a huge pain in the neck, not to mention completely anachronistic. (See Figure 7.) I mean, really, what's the point of having a futuristic wireless device if you have to plug it in to hear the frackin' thing?

Fig. 7: Cord tangle

Fig. 7: Another good argument for going wireless.

That's why Bluetooth was invented. It's a short-range radio network for mobile devices that works exactly like invisible wires. You pair one device to another, then transfer data back and forth as if the two devices were connected by cable...except there's no cable (and no tangled wires).



Bluetooth devices correspond almost exactly to their wired counterparts. There's the standard mono Bluetooth headset: you see them in people's ears everywhere (see Figure 8). Despite Apple's attempt to make them more stylish and comfortable, they still have a dorky reputation and remain the wireless equivalent of the telemarketer's headset. Still, they're fine if all you ever do is talk on the phone.

Fig. 8: Mono Bluetooth Headsets

Fig. 8: Monophonic Bluetooth headsets.

But for music, you gotta have stereo, and for this you can get Bluetooth headphones. These are more for dancing around your living room than walking around outside, and are for some reason designed to be as uncomfortable and oddly shaped as possible.

Maybe manufacturers don't want you to wear them too long, because the battery life sucks. Plus there's no mic, so they don't even accept phone audio. If you're listening to music on your music phone and the phone rings, you need to take the headphones off to answer the phone. This seems fairly pointless.

Fiug. 9: Jabra 8010

Fig. 9: The Jabra 8010 is a stereo Bluetooth headset with mic.

Obviously, the answer is a Bluetooth stereo headset with mic (see Figure 9). This way you can listen to your music, play your kick-ass game, and still answer the phone when it rings. This configuration is becoming more popular, but it's still a fairly new technology and the physical designs are evolving rapidly.

Personally, I like the two-piece concept, but it makes me wonder how long it will be before miniaturization simply turns them into earbuds. In fact, since Bluetooth is all about eliminating wires, how about a headset that consists of a wireless left earbud, plus a wireless right earbud, plus a wireless "mic and control" unit (possibly worn as a pin on your left shoulder? Now we really are talking about Star Trek technology! :)

The Voices in My Head

Increased use of stereo headsets will change the way we relate to telephone communications. Consider this: how many of you talk on your cell phones wearing both earbuds? The first time I did it, I found it vaguely disturbing, as if the person were talking to me from the inside of my head. Excuse me, I've already got a coupla voices in there, telling me what to do, and you're just confusing me....

Until recently, talking on the phone was, without exception, a monaural experience. Even now, I almost always pull out one earbud out when I'm on a call. But the case of "listening to music, then the phone rings" is so common you quickly get used to the schizophrenic feeling of the voice in your head. In fact, it can even make you feel more connected to your caller, and facilitate communications in high-noise environments, like, say, every street-corner call you've ever made.

Stereo headphones create an audio barrier around your head. The world goes silent (or at least gets a lot quieter), and you navigate through the environment with your own soundtrack. But with stereo headsets, people who have your phone number can now pierce that barrier and join you inside it (and in the exact center of it). If your caller is also wearing a stereo headset, it's as if your bubbles are connected, like a yin-yang. You're inside of their head, and they're inside of yours (see Figure 10).

Fig. 10: Headphone Conversation Bubble

Fig. 10: Stereo headphone conversations put you and your caller inside a yin-yang bubble of communication.

Better-Sounding Phone Calls

But there's a problem: talking on the phone via Bluetooth stereo headset is the equivalent of listening to 8-bit, 8kHz, µ-law compressed voiceovers in full "CD-quality" 16/44 stereo sound. In practice, headsets don't waste the bandwidth, so phone calls still sound pretty crappy. (When receiving a call, the headset goes into Hands Free Profile [HFP] mode, which uses much less power and bandwidth than Advanced Audio Distribution Profile [A2DP] mode, which is used for music.) But there's no reason why the headset can't produce full-resolution voice audio, since it's already doing it for music playback.

Which makes me wonder: how long will it be before voice data is transferred at the same rate as everything else? If I can stream high-resolution video to my cell phone, then surely, eventually, scratchy, noisy, band-limited phone calls will be a thing of the past.

There's another good reason why high-definition voice data via broadband connection is a Really Good Idea™ — conference calls. Right now, when you're on a conference call, you get multiple streams of crappy audio, all mixed together crappily by the phone network. In a mobile broadband world, you could receive multiple streams of conferenced calls and position them in the stereo field for increased intelligibility. If you wanted to get really fancy, you could use 3D audio processing to put the boss at the front of the room and your colleagues on either side.

Sharing Music

Speaking of group auditory experiences, let's talk about music. You gotta use headphones to listen to your tunes, obviously, but you can't share them with anybody that way. But imagine if I could authorize your headset to pick up my phone's audio signal, then we could both listen to what my phone was playing.

Currently, the technology doesn't work that way. There's only ever a single pairing between Bluetooth devices, for obvious security reasons. But the range of these things is only a few feet, so sharing audio streams would be an up-close-and-personal experience anyway. All I'm really talking about is connecting an additional virtual cable to my phone, the equivalent of using a wireless Y-jack.

So now I'm wearing headphones, and you're wearing headphones, and we can both hear the music...but not each other. It's like being under water — or not! These headsets have built-in microphones, so there's no reason why you couldn't mix your voice into the shared music stream. Then I can talk to you, you can talk to me, and we can both still hear the music.

The network then becomes like a virtual boombox that only those in close proximity can hear. When you move away, the virtual cable is pulled and the music drops out of your headset. But since your local network is also connected to phone/data networks, you don't even need proximity for this feature.

Given a high-speed, high-resolution, phone audio network, you and your friend could conference-call into a music server or live performance and chat with each other while the music plays in the background. Since you're both on stereo headsets, you could also use 3D audio processing to position yourselves in the best seats in the house, with your friend on your right (who, of course, would hear you on the left).

Sharing Game Sound

Speaking of 3D audio, let's use that feature in a mobile Star Wars game to send those damn Imperial TIE-fighters buzzing around your head like flies, giving you more reason to swat them out of the sky. Then you can switch to multiplayer mode and contact the rest of your squadron. Now you're bantering via voice data network with Red Leader on your left and Red 5 on your right, all while blasting spaceship formations in coordinated attacks.

To be honest, I'm not sure what effect broadband phones will have on multiplayer gaming, but I'm pretty sure it'll be profound. Social networking and mobile technology go together like apple pie and ice cream, and Mobile Web 2.0 is what all the cool kids are into these days. That trend will only continue to increase, and I can easily imagine mobile multiplayer games, where everyone in the group shares a common audio experience. It could be battlefield bullets, concert footage, proximity alerts, or who knows what!

That's the wild card, the "who knew?" factor. You can track trends, look at the hardware, and make all the predictions you like, but there will always be that one new idea, that unforeseeable circumstance or confluence, that turns things around in ways you hadn't even considered before.

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