Ear is the news

Headsets are the future of communication and computing - but why do they have to look so dumb?

Star Trek fans are a talkative bunch. In particular, they love to tell the world about Federation technology that’s subsequently turned up in the real world. Mobile phones with flips? The communicator, Earthman. Labs making photons disappear from one side of the room and reappear on the other? That’s the transporters coming on line, Captain.

But they never mention the huge shiny metal device constantly protruding from Lt. Uhura’s left ear. Which is odd, because the real-world descendents of Uhura’s lug plug are all over the place now as Bluetooth-connected wireless phone earpieces Could it be there are some things just too hideously geeky for even a Trekkie to love?

Alas, yes. We’ve looked at a few by now (for more information, click here for a review of the Plantronics M3000): they do a good and useful job and the underlying technology is dead clever. They all have one common feature: wearing one makes you look like a dolt -- at best, if you pose in front of your dead expensive flat screen monitor and look eager, like an insurance call centre operative. Outside space opera, there is nothing acceptable about having a massive plastic slug clinging to the side of your face.

What might seem like just another abortive gadget has much deeper implications for the industry. Remember combined PDAs and mobile phones? Despite huge amounts of R&D effort, massive marketing efforts and a good five years of people like us writing about them, the masses haven’t been convinced. Everything’s ready for the smart communicator revolution -- gorgeous miniature screens, superfast processors that barely nibble at their batteries, multi-megabyte memories in fingernail-sized cards -- except that you can barely give the things away.. Treo’s been bought by Palm, nobody remembers Pogo and the only people making money from Microsoft’s Windows Powered Smartphone are Sendo’s lawyers.

The reason for this wholesale rejection is simple: you look at a PDA and you listen to your phone. Trying to make one box do both is like creating a symphony orchestra of supermodels: the best you can do is a mix of people who are quite pretty and quite musical, satisfying nobody.  You either have something that’s a good PDA, like the Treo, but looks and feels horrible when pressed to the side of your head, or stuff like the Smartphone, which is an acceptable form factor for mobile talking and texting but crippled for the sort of complex, intensive keyboard work that you always end up having to do.

The ideal mobile phone should be tiny -- and would be, if you didn’t need keys you can press and a display you can read. The ideal PDA has to be big enough not to get in the way of how we humans work: that’s the reason pocket calculators shrank to a certain size and then no further.

Bluetooth headsets should be the perfect solution. They are the ideal telephone: the user interface is taken care of by the PDA. For its part, the PDA stays in a position where you can write on and read it in mid-conversation -- when you normally need to look things up or take them down, of course -- or just left in your pocket as you natter away. The combination will be dynamite, with phone and computing functions physically separate but virtually combined.

It won’t happen while the headsets look so flaming ugly. When they calm down and start looking cool, the repercussions will be felt way beyond the exciting world of PDA makers. Once people get used to the idea of wearing a small device that links to IT equipment, the second great revolution will kick off -- voice control.

We’re back on the bridge of the Enterprise, where computers hear what you say and talk back.  You may have noticed that they don’t do this in real life. This isn’t so much because they can’t understand us -- that bit’s been getting quite a lot better lately -- but because the business of hoiking a human voice out of the enormous background melange of everyday noises is even harder. If a device can get a nice, close-up, noise-cancelled audio signal delivered via Bluetooth, it’ll hear and obey. And of course, it can talk back quietly and privately without the need for any extraneous screens, sockets, speakers or what have you.

Freed of the burden of visible interfaces, our computer systems can gratefully sink out of sight and become properly integrated with our environment. There will be plenty of times when it’s still appropriate to sit in front of a screen and bash away at a keyboard: the old PC will last a while yet. The voice-enabled ambient computer market will be quite new, and will enable whole new markets in home automation and entertainment, public information systems, security, retail and other areas yet to be invented

The good news -- for Trekkies and the less astral -- is that elegant headsets are on their way. I’ve already seen fashionistas in the trendiest parts of London wearing sleek, silver squiggles on their heads and most definitely carrying it off. For me, I’ll know the future really is here when I’m stuck in Soho on a wet Saturday night, need to find a cab and can call one up by merely uttering the words “Open hailing frequencies.”  But I think I’ll leave the red shirt at home.