Bragi Boldly Goes Where Apple’s AirPods Have Yet To Go – Forbes
Back in 2013 a Danish designer named Nikolaj Hviid took his prototype of wireless earbuds to Appleâ€™s headquarters in Cupertino, Calif. to get some feedback. He then spent most of hisÂ meeting listening to someone tell him why his wireless earbuds couldnâ€™t be done.Â
HviidÂ wasn’tÂ swayed.Â When AppleÂ announced three yearsÂ later in Sept. 2016 thatÂ it wasÂ introducing its own wireless earbuds, called AirPods, he’d already been shipping The DashÂ for six months. The $230 wireless earbudsÂ counted steps, heart rate and couldÂ activate a phoneâ€™s digital assistant.Â
But people are still telling Hviid that his vision wonâ€™t work.Â
â€œA month ago I had a business meeting with someone who thought I was presenting a concept, not a finished product,â€ he says from his office in Munich, Germany where his startupÂ Bragi, a maker of wireless earbuds, is headquartered.
When the engineer didnâ€™t believe heâ€™d really made TheÂ Dash earphones, Hviid took out a box and put it on the table. â€œWeâ€™ve sold more than 100,000 0f these,â€ he told him. Â
The engineer still wasn’t convinced.Â â€œYouâ€™ll never be able to get it to work right.â€ Â
ThereÂ are, indeed, some big kinks Bragi needs to iron out.
Nearly a third of Amazon reviewers of The Dash have given the product justÂ one star because of choppy bluetooth connectivity when playing music or making a call.Â
Wearable tech is aÂ tough businessÂ that does not forgive these kinds of flaws. Many ofÂ the big names behindÂ wristÂ gadgets are winding down some or all of their operations because they’ve struggled to convince consumers their products are necessary. Smartwatch maker Pebble sold to Fitbit, Fitbitâ€™s share price has plummetedÂ since its IPO, and JawboneÂ may beÂ getting ready to ditch the consumer business.Â
But Bragi â€” whose name derives from the Norse gatekeeper to mythical Valhalla â€” thinks its wireless earbuds will be different. In January 2017 Bragi started shipping its latest product, The Headphone, a simpler alternative to the Dash.Â All it does isÂ play audio,Â and it has much more stable bluetooth connectivity. Â
Hviid wonâ€™t reveal revenue figures but his startup has raised $35 million from mostly private investors, enabling him to hire 180 people in Munich, Hong Kong, Chicago and New York.Â Â Â
Investors have good reason to be sniffing around. 2016 was â€œa huge leap for wireless headphones,â€ according to FORBES contributor Ian Morris, who believes Appleâ€™s AirPods were crucial to giving the market a boost. Â
Among the competitors, and there are plenty: Samsungâ€™s Gear IconX,Â Motorolaâ€™s VerveOnes, the $300 Erato Apollo 7, the $99 Jabees BTWins and the $50 Axgio Dash. (Click the links for reviews on the latter three by FORBES contributor Ben Sin.)
There are few reviews of Appleâ€™s AirPods, but Geoffrey Fowler of The Wall Street Journal wore them for three monthsÂ last year,Â and said that while they â€œlook weird,â€ theyâ€™re â€œAppleâ€™s best new product in years.â€ Â
Perhaps not surprisingly, Hviid disagrees. He can’t get overÂ that one-inch, goofy-looking stick that hangs down from each AirPod.Â
â€œI wouldnâ€™t have made [them],â€ he says. Â
Apple was understandably trying to get the bluetooth antenna and microphone â€œas far away from the inner ear as possible,â€ he says. â€œBut when I made my product, I wanted a discreet product, not an in-your-face product.â€Â
Thatâ€™s a fair point. Despite the remarkable technology behind Google Glass, the product ultimately flopped because it looked weird on peopleâ€™s faces. Â
Nearly allÂ other wireless earbud competitors are designed like Bragi, as a simple, round object. Bragiâ€™s Dash and Headphone are subtler than the AirPods, but like any of its peers not truly discreet. Thereâ€™s clearly a pair of black objects in your ear when youâ€™re wearing them.Â
Hviid argues that the AirPod sticks show AppleÂ capitulated to an engineering problem it couldnâ€™t solve, andÂ that BragiÂ has solved it (though some of those Amazon reviewers mightÂ disagree). Hviid avoids detail on how, only saying heâ€™s been making wireless earphones for â€œa lot longerâ€ than Apple. â€œThe difference is we are now a second generation product.â€
One thing Hviid is certainÂ about is that mainstream consumers will adopt wireless earphones quickly. â€œThe vast majority of headphones being sold in 2017 and 2018 will be wireless,â€ he says, citing a historical precedent:Â those old TVâ€™s that had cable-connected remotes in the 1980â€™s. All of a sudden, â€œwithin two years, not one single remote had a cable.â€ Â Â
How might the Dash evolve? Future generations could eventually get their own SIM card so they donâ€™t need to be tethered to a smartphone, Hviid says. Some smartwatches like Samsungâ€™s Gear, have already taken that step. These gadgets, along with the AmazonÂ Echo, are a â€œfourth-generation computing device that surrounds you, an ambient computer.â€Â
That means gadgets like The Dash need to become smarter at recognizing whatâ€™s happening to its wearer at any given time. Ask Siri for â€œhelpâ€ when youâ€™re standing on a mountain versus when youâ€™re sitting in front of a computer, and it’llÂ requireÂ a vastly different set of algorithms.Â
For now, ambient computing is held back by a lack of sensors. Even the most enthusiastic wearable gadget owner isÂ limited to something on their wrist, in there pocket and maybe in their ear. Hviid is thinking past that. â€œIn some years youâ€™ll have a computer in your button, in your shoe, in your belt,â€ he say. â€œAnd if you go further in 30 or 40 years youâ€™ll spray nano computers on you or eat them.â€Â Â
â€œThe biggest challenge moving forward is not how powerful the processor is, but how you use it,â€ says Hviid. â€œItâ€™s the user interface thatâ€™s going to be the challenge.â€Â
Bragi is already experimenting with taking some of the controls for the Dash off the earbuds, and onto the body, with a software update that allows you to tap the side of your face to activate your phoneâ€™s digital assistant. The feature is still in beta and while itâ€™s said to work fine indoors, it doesnâ€™t get picked up very well outside.Â Â
Hviid wants his customers to be able to use gestures they already use in every day life. If you get a phone call while wearing the Dash, you should be able to nod your head to accept it or shake your head to reject it, he says.Â
For now Bragi seems to haveÂ finally gotÂ the basics down with audio on The Headphone. But it needs to iron out those technical kinks on The Dash, particularly when it comes to bluetooth, if it really wantsÂ to keep ahead ofÂ Apple in making a smart, contextually aware “in-ear computer,” as Hviid describes it.
If it can do that and develop innovative gestures too, Bragi could remain an even stronger challenger to AppleÂ and those other larger competitors.Â
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