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'Tron'-like Glow headphones pulse to the music and your heart

Nicole Lee , @nicole
01.27.15
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At first glance, a pair of Glow headphones might seem like gimmicky glow-in-the-dark earbuds that are designed to get your attention and not much else. But look a little closer and you'll find something a whole lot more interesting: Glow purports to be the "world's first" pair of smart headphones embedded with laser light. Yep, that Tron-like glow from the cable emanates from something called Fibrance, a special light-diffusing fiber from the folks over at Corning -- you know, the same folks who make that Gorilla Glass stuff. As for what makes it so "smart"? Well, the colored light of the cable isn't static -- it actually pulsates to the beat of the music. And, if all of Glow's Kickstarter goals are met, even to the beat of your heart.

Gallery: Glow headphones | 20 Photos

But that isn't the only thing that makes Glow so unique. Glow is also one of a few pairs of headphones that are designed to be compatible with Android right from the start. "Android never had a dedicated audio accessory," says Zi Wang, the man who came up with the idea for Glow almost two years ago. Wang would certainly know a thing or two about this -- he's currently employed at Google and has worked closely with the Android team. Though he invented the concept, however, Wang's role in Glow is mostly an advisory one, leaving most of the operations up to a team he built himself. Leading the team is Rafal Zboinski, an engineer with a long history when it comes to research and development in both hardware and software.

"Close to 98 percent of audio accessories on the market don't work properly with Android devices," says Wang, adding that they mostly only work with iOS. What he means by this, is that these accessories often have features that mimic the built-in clicker found on Apple's earbuds. That clicker does all kinds of things, like adjust the volume, answer phone calls, play or pause the music and even take a photo. Those same functions, he says, don't always play well with Android. Seeing as Android has nearly 1.3 billion users around the world, this struck Wang as a severe oversight. "It deserves a compatible solution to iOS."

What sort of functions are they talking about? Well, in addition to the lights pulsing to the beat of the music or to your heart, there's also a five-way d-pad controller that communicates with your phone over Bluetooth LE. You can use the controller to do all the usual things, like change the volume, play/pause music and switch tracks. It should work with most music apps like Pandora, Rdio and Spotify. Pressing the center button would activate voice commands like Google Now and you can use it as a camera shutter button too. There's also a separate phone button to answer or reject calls, and that d-pad has a clip on the rear.


And that's not all. Wang is planning on much more advanced features that include the ability to understand contextual situations. For example, say you're running late for a meeting and you're in your car. Your phone would be clever enough to know all of that information already due to your scheduled appointments and it would recognize your mode of transportation based on data from speed and motion sensors. If you receive a message in that moment asking your whereabouts, you could simply press the up button to trigger a canned "I'm on my way" response. Another example, Wang says, is if the phone notices you're watching a movie, you could hit a button to trigger an "I'll get back to you" reply.

The catch here, however, is that most of these advanced features will be Android-only, at least to start. iOS users will still have base features like music controls and rhythmic light pulsing, but Wang lacks the resources right now to guarantee parity with both. iOS support is, however, one of Glow's stretch goals on Kickstarter.

Of course, Glow also touts a superior audio performance. It boasts dual balanced armature for great harmonic response and true sound reproduction. Wang says they've worked really closely with Knowles, a company that makes high-quality audio components for brands such as Sennheiser.

Interestingly, the Glow still hooks up to the phone via the regular ol' 3.5mm jack. With Bluetooth LE, why not just add stereo Bluetooth to the mix and remove the need to be tethered to the phone altogether? That's because if the battery ever goes out, you can still use the headphones as just regular headphones. "If the battery goes out on a 15-hour flight, you can still listen to music," says Wang. If it was wireless, you'd be out of luck. Still, Wang says Glow will offer eight hours of continuous use and the team is currently developing an attachment to extend the battery life if necessary.

In the end, Wang wants Glow to be more than just a pair of headphones. He wants them to be in the wearable category too. But while earbuds like the Bragi Dash are focused more on fitness, he wants Glow to be more about lifestyle, emphasizing utility and usability. "Our heart-rate sensing and ability to express that, is about expression. When you're out running, you can see the light pulse faster according to the rhythm of your heart ... If it senses you're in a calm mood, the pulsing will slow down." There'll be a binary switch that lets you choose whether you'd prefer the light to pulse to the rhythm of the music or to your heartbeat.

Wang wants Glow to have a beautiful aesthetic, but he's also careful to make it out of quality materials. That aforementioned d-pad is made out of a soft polycarbonate, and the housing of the light fiber is wrapped in a TPE material that he says will ensure the cord will be free of tangles. As for colors? They'll be available in red, green or blue -- sorry, no RGB color-switching mode yet.

Oh, and there's actually a story behind the choice of the Fibrance material itself. Two years ago, when Wang came up with the idea, he wanted to use electroluminescent light cables. Indeed, he was so far along in the creation process that he had already made prototypes and filmed a Kickstarter video for it. But he came across the Corning Fibrance material by chance at an event, and was so enamored by the technology that he had to make the hard decision to scrap the entire thing and start from scratch. They were only two weeks from launching, but he says he had to do it. It was a good decision in the end, he says, because between then and now, they've also integrated other important features like Bluetooth, the beat analysis and a much lower-power chip (an ARM Cortex-M0, if you're curious).

I had a chance to try out a working prototype of the Glow headphones, and while it's difficult to truly judge the audio quality in such a brief amount of time, I came away impressed. It was neither too bass-heavy nor too treble-heavy, striking a nice, rich balance between the two. The light, as advertised, did pulse according to the music, but not in a heavy staccato like I expected. Instead it sort of ebbed and flowed with the song, almost like a roller coaster of rhythm rather than anything that flashed or blinked (which I imagine would be far more annoying). It seems like a neat feature, but in all honesty, I'd probably feel really self-conscious wearing such an eye-catching thing out in public.

Alright, so what's the damage? If you get in on the Early Bird Special, a pair of Glow headphones will set you back $127. Wait a little longer, and you can snag one for $149, which is a special Kickstarter price. It's certainly spendy, but that's about on par with most premium headphones. There are also a couple of big-ticket Kickstarter packages -- the $1,000 developer kit will get you an SDK, while a $4,000 backing will get you and a friend invited to a special electronic dance music event in Las Vegas, appropriate accommodations, plus three different Glow headphones.

It's worth noting here that certain features require the Kickstarter to hit certain stretch goals. iOS support will need $500,000; the ability for the Glow light to dance to steps and movement will need $750,000; and that cool heart rate monitor thing? That will require $1 million. Photosynthetic sensors don't come cheap.

"Kickstarter for us is a market validation," Wang says. "We want to see if people will like it. What do people think? Are we on the right track?" If you feel like it is and you're willing to put your money on it, then head over to Glow's freshly launched Kickstarter page to pledge your contribution.

[Image credit: Glow]

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