We've all been there. You're standing around, trying to have a conversation -- meaningful or otherwise -- but that wretched, raucous noise means all you can do is cock your head and mouth "I can't hear you!" to your friend. San Francisco-based startup Soundhawk doesn't want that to ever happen again. The team can't boost your hearing to Superman-esque levels, but with a new $299 gadget they can at least augment your ears when you need it the most.
It all starts with what CEO Mike Kisch calls the Scoop, an unassuming little earpiece that doesn't look entirely unlike a Bluetooth headsets Bose puts out. It's laden with microphones and silicon which allows it to capture sound, chew on it, and feed you that processed audio in real time with a little help from a connected smartphone.
Wait, hang on: chew on it?
That's Soundhawk's secret sauce: it fiddles with the very nature of the sound you're hearing to make it easier to understand. I got to spend some brief ears-on time with a near-final version of the device, and the effect was pretty damned impressive. I'll be the first to admit that my hearing isn't what it used to be, so holding a clear, audible conversation amid the din of (simulated) restaurant noise was something of a revelation. It's not hearing aid, though, as Kisch noted multiple times. Making one of those would both limit the device's appeal and open the company up to a regulatory rigmarole that seems more trouble than its worth. No, the team looks at the Soundhawk as more of a lifestyle enhancer, as potentially cheesy as that sounds. This is something you're supposed to stick in your ear when you're driving or making the rounds at a crowded shindig, not a therapeutic device to restore what once was lost. Oh, and it doubles as a Bluetooth headset, in case duty calls while you're out and about.
The other half of the hardware equation is a wireless microphone that connects to the Scoop that'll extend the range of your hearing. If we're being honest, the pièce de résistance is the app: it lets users toggle through different "sound scenes" that alter audio settings on the fly. Cruising around town with the top down? Invoking the Driving mode amps up environmental noise reduction. Enjoying a quiet meal with the family? Indoor mode will boost the sound of people's voices to a more comfortable level. There are a mere four sound scenes available out of the box, but Kisch promises that users will be able to create their own in time. More importantly, all of those settings can be tuned to your liking with a dead simple drag-and-drop interface -- there are no tests, no lengthy processes, just a bit of touching until you hear what you like.
This whole thing may sound just a little too out there for the masses, but Soundhawk seems to have the ears of some very powerful partners. In addition to nabbing another $5.5 million from a slew of venture investors, the team has also locked up a key partnership with Foxconn... sort of like the deal GoPro inked before it absolutely exploded. We're still waiting to get some final hardware in our ears, but there's little doubting that Soundhawk's system does what it sets out to do. Now the multimillion dollar question is whether people flock to this wild-eyed wearable the way Kisch and his crew hope.