While modern Bluetooth earpieces are more compact than ever, chances are you'll still need to leave at least one stuck in your ear. This can get uncomfortable over time, not to mention the dorkiness that's been haunting this form factor since day one. Hong Kong startup Origami Labs thinks it has an alternative solution to this problem: why not repackage the Bluetooth earpiece as a ring, and then use bone conduction to transmit audio to the fingertip? That's the basic concept behind the Orii smart ring.
Using bone conduction for audio transmission is hardly a new idea. It's a commonly used technology in the hearing aid market, as this transmits sound directly to the inner ear, thus bypassing hearing issues caused by the middle or outer ear. But most of us know bone conduction better in the form of wireless headphones -- most notably the ones from AfterShokz, which let you enjoy music or take calls while leaving your ears open for the sake of safety.
It's a similar use case with the Orii: you wear the ring on your index finger, and when it vibrates with an incoming call, simply lift your hand up, touch your fingertip on a sweet spot just before your ear, then chat away. An earlier crowdfunding project, the Sgnl smart strap (formerly TipTalk) by Korea's Innomdle Lab, had the same idea, but it has yet to ship to backers long after its February target date this year.
The Orii is essentially an aluminum ring melded to a small package containing all the electronics. The main body on the latest working prototype came in at roughly 30 mm long, 20 mm wide and 12 mm thick. These figures don't do Orii any justice, as its curved design makes it look smaller than it sounds. At least I'd be fine with wearing it for a while, depending on how comfortable the final design feels.
It's pretty impressive when you consider what's housed inside the splash-proof ring: a dual Bluetooth 4.0 radio with Bluetooth Low Energy support, dual-mic noise cancellation, a gyroscope, an LED (for customizable notifications in the app), a 50 mAh battery and, most importantly, a bone conduction actuator near the bottom side of the main body. It's worth pointing out that the seemingly tiny battery provides about 1.5 hours of continuous listening time and at least 40 hours of standby time, both of which should be plenty for general daily use.
Much like some of the latest Bluetooth earpieces these days, Orii supports both iPhone's Siri and Android's Google Assistant, meaning you can simply wave your hand up, stick your fingertip to near your ear and start talking to your voice assistant right away. I can imagine this gesture becoming an excuse for me to use voice assistant more often, mainly because this feels like a more natural way of interacting with my virtual assistant.
But on a more serious note, CEO Kevin Wong sees this screen-free input method serving a greater purpose for those in need -- especially his father, Peter, who inspired him as a visually impaired software engineer and also a founding member of Microsoft's accessibility team.
Given the nature of the Orii prototypes I saw recently, I could only try the sound quality and get a feel of what it's like wearing one. To my surprise, the audio sounded much better than I expected, and I could hear it well even inside the busy cafe. This would also come in handy when I want to summon my voice assistant, but alas, that part of the prototypes didn't behave well that day, so there's still some work to be done.
To ensure each Orii fits well before it ships in February next year, Origami Labs will be sending out a ring sizing gauge to all backers for measurements, as well as gathering final color requests: matte black, sandblasted silver, metallic dark gray or armor red. Each ring will also include three silicone inserts for minor adjustments.
At the time of writing this post, Orii's crowdfunding campaign had already pledged over four times its funding goal, courtesy of some 835 backers. These folks either really hate Bluetooth earpieces or they just want to play spies. Or both.