Jam together a magnet and a coil, slap on some padding and a headband and you’ve got yourself a pair of headphones. Needless to say that’s a gross oversimplification, but to a large degree that might describe most of the over the ear headphones in the market today. Many of them deliver a varying degree of bass, treble, depth, and detail. But at the end of the day, they’re all effectively the same core product….that is until now.
Last week at CES, I dropped by Able Planet’s booth in the Centra Hall. The company had carved out a fair bit of floor, allowing the company to show off everything from their line of noise canceling headphones, to passive cans, to hearing aid like devices. What they didn’t have available for the general crowd was a new pair of headphones that use a piece of technology licensed from Bayer AG. Yes, the same Bayer that makes the Aspirin you jam in your mouth when your knee hurts or you wake up with a “killer hangover”.
After months of tinkering, Able Planet has effectively leveraged a piece of technology that fits inside of your headphones, and provides what might be best described as a varying amount of force feedback once only found inside of video game controllers. But unlike those controllers, which generally deliver vibrations at two levels – on or off – Able Planet’s tech, called Vivi Touch, monitors the sound – be it a movie, music, or video game – and is capable of reflecting the audio output in the form of vibrations.
The iteration I played with was purely a prototype model, and Able Planet assured me that the final design would embed the entire technology directly into the headphones themselves. That said, the box you see pictured contained the actual Vivi Touch tech and included a volume and mute switch, allowing me to experience the sampled audio with and without it activated. The result, and this is an understatement, is a compelling one.
Using some sort of special polymer (or a film as they call it) that can react to what surely must be a varying degree of electricity, the Vivi Touch enabled headphones can deliver a wide array of vibrations that closely shadow the lows of the audio. Bayer’s website describes it as “muscular bass”, which is a relatively apt description as it is something you hear and feel simultaneously. I’m not sure I would go as far as to call it Umami (the fifth sense of taste), but without the Vivi Touch box activated I suddenly felt like I was missing part of the soundtrack.
Sample clips experienced with the Vivi Touch included “Battlefield 3″, a JLo music video with none other than Pitbull, and the trailer from “Transformers 2″ (or 3 – they’re all the same). “Battlefield 3″, was surprisingly the least engaging of all the examples. Whereas the Transformers clip was probably the most enthralling thanks to the heavy bass pumping sound effects and soundtrack. With the Vivi Touch box muted the experience was far less visceral. However, with it activated, it wasn’t my ears that detected the difference – though initially that was the common misperception – it was the feeling of something almost electrical running through my body. Sounds a bit corny, but that’s what comes to mind.
Unfortunately, Able Planet is mum on the launch date and price, but from my understanding we might be able to get one sometime later this year.
Update: I just got word from Able Planet. We’ll have a demo unit in hands in probably 4 months!