What’s the problem with Apple’s AirPods? Well, other than their price and so-so sound quality, they tend to suffer from the same thing as all other headphones and earbuds, whether they’re wired or not: When wearing them, you look like you are unavailable to those around you, which tends to be true. Earbuds in the ears have even become a universal do-not-disturb sign of sorts, with some people choosing to wear them even when not listening to music, as a way of avoiding unwanted interactions — especially harassment. But the fact is, we’re using our headphones for much more than just listening to our tunes or podcasts. With an increasing number of models providing us with one-tap access to our voice assistants (or even just a quick, “Hey, Siri”) our earbuds are quickly becoming our secondary interface to our phones.
It’s this realization — that over time we will only become more invested in speaking to and listening to our personal A.I. — that has led Frog Design, the company that created the now-iconic original Macintosh shape, to rethink what our earbuds should look like and how we use them. The team at Frog Design calls its radical, open-hoop concept “Unum,” and we’ve never seen anything like them. “In the future,” a Frog Design spokesperson told Digital Trends, “voice assistants will become so ubiquitous that the constant connection to our personal headphones will be too isolating of a social experience. Consumers will need headphones that support long augmented audio experiences without disrupting their real-world communications.”
The solution, according to Frog Design, is a true wireless earphone design that leaves the ears completely exposed — at least visually. The shape and internal components like the micro-speaker drivers and mics are all designed to channel sound into your ear, without needing to be in, on, or over your ear. When people around you can see your ears — even if they can also see you wearing the Unum, it “signals a new social etiquette for the future.” It’s a subtle but effective cue that you can still hear others, even if you’re connected to an ambient audio input. It also avoids the need for the transparency mode that is being used to pipe outside sounds into conventional headphones and earbuds.
As odd as the Unum look, there’s method to the madness. “The intention with this concept is to create a headphone which doesn’t need to be taken off,” said Jungsoo Park, an industrial designer at Frog. That concept even extends to the Unum’s proposed battery life, which is meant to last all day and won’t need a charging case. Frog is so committed to this idea, they intentionally avoided creating one for the Unum.
How do they sound? We can’t tell you yet. It’s possible that even the team at Frog doesn’t know — the images above are prototypes for fit and do not have working components yet. As such, the Unum remains a concept only — Frog Design hasn’t announced any pricing or dates for possible retail availability. “Testing demand for the product is one of the reasons for releasing a concept like this,” said Park, “we’re very interested to see how the public reacts to it.” In fact, as a design shop and not a manufacturer, it’s unlikely that if the Unum ever do make it to market they will be sold under the Frog Design brand.
The question is, will Frog Design be able to find an electronics company brave enough to build and market the Unum? The design may be just what the future needs, but at the present, it’s hard to see people willing to walk around with these plastic rings encircling their ears. Mind you, we thought the same thing about the AirPods, so who’s to say?
Updated August 16, with additional quotes from Frog Design.
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