Music is many things to many people: art, inspiration, expression. For athletes and exercisers, good tunes can also be an important motivation tool. Whether it's the skull-rattling, heavy Metallica stuff that gets you going or the dulcet, yacht-rock offerings of bands like Hall & Oates, a good soundtrack can extend and enhance a workout. For a minute or two there, you might even forget that you're pounding the treadmill like a hamster in a wheel or participating in some strange lifting and grunting routine that certainly should be considered a form of torture under international law.
Of course, every exerciser marches to the beat of his or her own drum. Perhaps the mix of top 40 and Euro lounge music that many gym operators seem to enjoy just doesn't get the job done for you. As personal music devices seem to become increasingly smaller, it's never been easier to be your own DJ during a session on the stair-climber or a run in the park. There's just one pesky thing that seems to be getting in the way: wires. Headphone wires seem to have a knack for being too long, too short or simply unable to remain untangled.
The good news is that the wires may be on their way out. Dash headphones are wireless earbuds expected to hit the market in late 2015 that not only let users listen to music without any messy wires or heavy equipment, but also keep track of workouts while doing it. The minicomputer devices are primarily intended to enhance workouts, by giving users the ability to operate the headphones with predetermined physical cues. Eventually, they also may become a sort of personal assistant that handles a variety of day-to-day tasks. All for just under $300.
What Are Dash Headphones?
Dash may be the creation of a small group of innovators, but the wireless earbuds wouldn't be on their way to a treadmill near you without the generosity of a lot of folks. Nearly 16,000, in fact. That's how many people forked over contributions to Bragi, the company designing Dash, in spring 2014 through a Kickstarter campaign. Bragi raked in more than $3.3 million to develop the product, one of the most successful Kickstarter projects. Backers got a variety of thank-yous, from product discounts and a personalized message from Danish CEO Nikolaj Hviid to a free set of headphones, access to prototypes for application developers and a three-night stay in Munich for Oktoberfest [source: Kickstarter].
Hviid founded Bragi in 2013, after leaving his job as the head of design at Harman Kardon, an international audio company. What was his inspiration for the headphones? "I wanted to take all of the stuff away -- the phone, the watch -- and make something as pure as possible. Just two earplugs to entertain me, listen to me and take care of me," he told Wired UK.
The keys to making the Dash headphones completely wireless are the microcomputers and biosensors lodged in each earbud. Using Bluetooth technology, the left and right buds are expected to communicate with each other and link to mobile devices. Dash uses two LEDS to capture its wearer's heart rate, oxygen saturation level and body temperature by emitting low-intensity red and infrared light into the ears more than 50 times per second. Stereo accelerometers packed into the headphones also capture information used to track pace and distance [source: Bragi].
That's not to mention the music. The headphones can store up to 4 GB (or about 1,000 songs) of music and play tracks stored on phones, tablets and other devices. Their audio pass-through technology allows runners to enjoy the tunes while remaining at least vaguely aware of the outside world by letting in noises like the sound of a car honking and a cyclist's bell [source: DC Rainmaker].
Dash Headphone Technology
In addition to being completely wireless, the Dash headphones function without clips, wraps or earpieces. Designed using hearing aid molds, the buds are crafted to rest comfortably in a user's ear thanks to the different-sized silicon sleeves included with the product. These ensure the headphones will stay inside your ears during a jog in the park or a dip in the pool [source: O'Kane].
That's right, the headphones are waterproof. Swimmers can listen to an underwater soundtrack while gauging their body signs and paddling distances as far as about 30 feet (9 meters) below the surface of an ocean, lake or pool [source: DC Rainmaker].
The headphones operate with trackpads similar to those found in smartphones or tablets, allowing users to operate them with a series of touch commands like taps and slides. Think of them as two separate computers, each serving a different function. The left earbud handles the fitness-based work, which exercisers can access to start or stop a workout, check body levels and manage tracking options. The right earbud is the jukebox. It controls sounds, operates playlists and plays music in mp3 and AAC formats. It also can take a phone call, thanks to an imbedded microphone [source: Magdaleno].
Each earbud contains a Bluetooth chip that allows a pair to "speak" to each other and to a user's smartphone. The signals can't travel through the wearer's head, and the company is currently developing a specialized antenna to send it around the back of the head. As CEO Hviid recently explained to Kickstarter contributors, the company has run into some trouble getting the antennas just right. The antennas have thus far had limited ability to "hear" each other in areas where many wireless signals are operating at the same time [source: Kickstarter].
The headphones can generally be used without being connected to a smartphone, but they can do more with the help of a smartphone. According to Bragi, the smartphone cannot be further than 9-30 feet (3-10 meters) from the earbuds in order to maintain a connection. The distance depends on the physical surroundings. Some of the headphones' performance-tracking capabilities – like distance, speed and altitude – require the Dash to be connected to a smartphone's GPS. Others, however, are gauged by the sensors and stored in the microcomputers inside the earbuds. Dash similarly includes 4 GB of storage for music –uploaded from a cell phone over the Bluetooth connection – that it can access and play directly. The headphones can also play other tunes stored on your phone device [sources: DC Rainmaker, Solon].
As one might expect, all of that work requires a strong battery. The headphones can be fully charged in about an hour, according to Bragi, and have the juice to play up to roughly three hours of continuous music [source: O'Kane].
The touch-screen functionality is all well and good, but it may be tough to operate while sprinting through the park or doing the backstroke at the YMCA. That's why Bragi is also developing the headphones to respond to physical gestures that the company refers to as macros. Move your head in a certain direction, for instance, and you can move to the next track on your playlist. Shake your head "no" and you can decline an incoming phone call from your boss. The macros can be set to individual users' preferences and turned on or off at any time. Although they will initially be operable only in conjunction with a smartphone or tablet, the company is hoping to eventually get to the point where they can be used to operate the headphones independently [source: O'Kane].
Bragi is also working with applications developers so that the headphones can interact with a wide variety of different apps. Heart rate and other fitness data can be transferred to and used by most health and body monitoring apps, for example. In the future, the company is looking to expand app-based capabilities beyond the fitness and performance horizon and into everyday assistant territory, similar to the idea behind Google Glass. That includes the ability to bring up and use a slew of information – from weather reports to real-time language translation programs - with a couple of swipes, or maybe even a few voice commands or nods of the head [source: O'Kane].
These features have critics cautiously optimistic about Dash and licking their chops to get their hands on a pair of the earbuds. Some Bluetooth-related kinks in the software, including the ability to send certain information to the device, are expected to be worked out after Bragi starts shipping the products in September 2015. Still, the current model was impressive enough to experts that it took home the best of innovation prize in the headphones category at the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show [sources: DC Rainmaker, Bragi].
Author's Note: How Dash Headphones Work
Wireless headphones aren't going to work for me. The trouble is that I'm very good (bad?) at losing stuff. Keys, phones, various forms of identification: turns out I have a preternatural talent for misplacing small and relatively important items. Taking away the wires will, I'm afraid, just make it easier for me to lose track of my earbuds. I used to think that spending more money on these things would make me more aware of them. Then I walked into the ocean with a pricey pair of sunglasses and walked out without my shades.
More Great Links
- Bragi. "Press Kit V2 2014." (April 5, 2015) http://www.sofemme.nl/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Bragi_Presskit_v2_1_2014.pdf
- DC Rainmaker. "An update on the Dash, the wireless heart-rate monitoring music headphones." Jan. 8, 2015 (April 5, 2015) http://www.dcrainmaker.com/2015/01/the-dash-bragi-update.html
- FreeWavz. "About FreeWavz." (April 5, 2015) http://www.freewavz.com/about
- Kickstarter. "Wireless Smart In Ear Headphones." (April 5, 2015) https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/hellobragi/the-dash-wireless-smart-in-ear-headphones/description
- Magdaleno, Alex. "Ultimate Bluetooth Headphones Will Track Your Workout." Mashable. Feb. 22, 2014 (April 5, 2015) http://mashable.com/2014/02/22/dash-earphones/
- O'Kane. Sean. "The first truly wireless earbuds are here, and they're awesome." The Verge. Jan. 2015 (April 5, 2015) http://www.theverge.com/2015/1/9/7512829/wireless-earbuds-ces-2015-bragi-dash
- Solon, Olivia. "The Dash: Ear's great way to monitor fitness." Wired UK. March 24, 2014 (April 7, 2015) http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2014-03/24/the-dash