How I discovered how to hear again

My perception of the world literally and figuratively changed when I first used Doppler Labs’ Here Active Listening earbuds.

As promised, the wireless audio devices added effects to the music I was listening to, in realtime by altering my open office’s audio landscape. The space transformed from Carnegie Hall to a stadium to a small hallway. Extending the effects further—by adding an echo or reverb effect—I was able to create a near psychotropic experience. Quickly, I began relying on its noise filtering features to quiet my coffice space surroundings.

The more I used them, the more I grew convinced of augmented reality’s potential. This was the first digital device since the iPhone that allowed my reality to be substantially changed in such an intuitive, and non-obstructive manner.

By managing how I heard the world, I was better able to live within it.

But there was one major downside: I had to choose between the earbuds or my traditional headphones. On the go, I could listen to music or enhance my audio landscape. Not both. Over time, my preference became clearer and I used Here less and less.

The odd thing was, even though my use decreased, I found more moments that I I wanted to use them. Whether it was on a plane, walking down the street, or just listening to a particular sound. I wanted something to amplify a muffled sound or disarm the focus-killing distractions.

I wasn’t alone, apparently.

Last summer, Doppler Labs announced a new version of its earbuds: Here One. The updated devices offered the ability to stream music, take phone calls—along with all the previous audio enhancements that had first opened my ears. Whereas I once had to remember to put previous version of the earbuds in, with the new ones, I’d never take them out…if the battery life would let me.

These earbuds are forcing me to reconsider my ideas about cybernetics, too. Instead of a brash Robocop world of man-machine, the reality seems to be more organic. These new devices may allow us to seamlessly reintegrate our digital lives with our physical lives, enhancing one with the strengths of the other.

As much as we’re entering uncharted territory, we’ve also gone down this path before.

In the middle of the last millennium, the invention of the printing press and polished glass changed how we thought about impaired vision. Today, digitally-enhanced listening devices like Here One and Apple’s AirPods are progressively reshaping our ideas about hearing impairments.

In essence, “disabilities” are made to disappear.

However you want to classify them, the products made by Doppler Labs are a perfect demonstration of what I’ve always found so enticing about technology’s promise: They ably demonstrate how we can harness new tools to help us better understand the world we live, and, in doing so, enable us to empathize with those we share it with.