Smart Headphones: Build your own for less than $100.

As engineer, I believe the most valuable skill you can have is curiosity. This article is an example of how you can relieve your curiosity by fast prototyping gadgets that you would actually use in your everyday life.

If you take a look at these two videos, you can get a pretty good overview of the gadget I have been working on. As a fan of the masterpiece movie “Memento”, let’s start from the end:

This article will explain how to make your headphones smart, in order to perform actions that you usually do manually every time you need to. Pause/play music and videos or muting conference calls are the most popular ones and the ones I have implemented so far. More improvements can be made in the future, such as pausing video games.

Making familiar objects “smart” is a trend known as IoT, the Internet of Things. You might come up with questions of everyday objects like “Why do I need to check if I have mail in my mailbox?” “Why can’t the mailbox tell me that there is mail?”

The answer to those questions involve a solution related to the Internet of Things. It would be great to have an email or whatsapp message on your phone from your mailbox: “Hey Francisco, I have mail for you, please come down and pick it up. By the way I did a quick scan and two of the letters seem to be advertisement”.

That’s basically the Internet of Things, you connect objects to the Internet, just to make your life easier, resulting on efficiency in everyday actions due to the extra amount of information you possess at any time. I think the mailbox will disappear in the next 10 years and all correspondence will be digital, but as an example this is quite explanatory.

More examples of the Internet of Things can be found in smart houses. The fridge will make the shopping list for you according to the food you have in it (and will order online). The oven will scan the color of the chicken in it just to cook it exactly as much as you want, and headphones will detect your head and will stop the podcast when you need to take them off, so you don’t miss a word. From smart thermostats to dash buttons all over your home, the web is full of examples that will invade your home in the next years… and you will like them.

The project I am explaining here reflects the work I did as part of a MOOC course I took at edX. It is called User Innovation: A Path to Entrepreneurship, by the MIT professor Eric Von Hippel.  The course is quite interesting and follows the book Democratizing Innovation, that I recommend.
Throughout the course, you need to apply user innovation to a problem you can recognize, and use your specific set of skills to actually create a solution for it. Obviously, your education background will make a difference on the kind of issues you are eligible to solve. Luckily enough, the funniest problem I recognized had a hardware/software solution, so I had the perfect combination. Let’s start with the user research of the problem you want to solve.

A significant part of the user innovation course and the book it is based on recognizing that the issue that bothers you, is actually bothering other people as well. Depending on your expectations and aspirations, this step is extremely important. If your idea of prototyping is to have fun, learn something new, write your experiences in a blog and share them, making a wrong judgement on the need of your solution does not seem to be a capital mistake. In that case you have absolutely nothing to lose. On the other hand, if you are planning to monetize your invention and create a startup out of it, the market needs have to be fully understood before you invest the first dollar on your great new idea.

Nevertheless, and according to the poll I did about music listening habits, it seems the problem I was trying to solve is actually bothering quite a lot of people. I invite you to take a survey. It is totally anonymous and you do it in less than 1 minute.

Music Listening Habits Survey

The results of the poll where quite enlightening. Most of the people used at least headphones when consuming media content. They mainly used them to play music or videos, being in third place the podcasts.

All of the respondents indicated that the main interruption they get while consuming media is someone entering the room and requiring their attention. Additionally, they stated that these interruptions happen everyday. 80% of them felt embarrassed, frustrated or annoyed when they needed to take their headphones off and the media continues playing.

Embarrassment comes with the fact that the person requiring your attention can probably listen what comes out of the headphones when you take them off, until you hit the pause button. Frustration comes due to missing song parts or podcasts when you don’t find the pause button and need to rewind later on.

I have noticed as well, specially talking to some of the poll participants, that when you are interrupted, the pause button might not be visible in that moment. You can be working on an Autocad drawing and listening music on a website. Therefore, when interrupted, you have to find the browser, hit the proper tab and click the pause button. Those few seconds seem to be an eternity when someone is standing next to you waiting for your attention (maybe your boss) and you don’t want to expose your musical taste.

It seems that the embarrassment and frustration is quite common, so the issue I thought about is, in fact, shared. Thus, the solution can be tested by some of those people who expressed their frustration, provinding very valuable feedback.

So let’s start learning, prototyping and creating a satisfying solution.

Continue in Part 2 – Hardware

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