One of the most interesting technologies I saw at Macworld had little to do with the Mac. So why did this company come to Macworld? The technology enhances various communications applications, and lots of Macintosh companies are working on improving communications using the Mac.
The product in question comes from Norris Communications, and they call it, appropriately enough, the Norris Ear PHONE[tm]. The Ear PHONE is this little item that you put in your ear, much as someone might wear a hearing aid or old radio earplug speakers. Unlike a hearing aid or radio speaker, the Norris Ear PHONE acts as both a speaker and a microphone. At the moment it uses a unidirectional microphone that works wonderfully, although I found it disconcerting to talk to someone on the phone without holding anything. (Norris kindly gave Mark Anbinder and me a private demonstration so we could try it.)
As neat as the unidirectional model was, Norris has an even more theoretically impressive version in the works. They only brought two prototypes to the show, and other people had them when we were checking out the unidirectional model, but the prototypes work on the principle of bone conduction. For those of you who aren't familiar with the principle, when you talk, you set up vibrations not only in the air surrounding you (causing the sound) but also in the tiny bones in your ear. Bone conduction microphones do not pick up any background noise, because that noise doesn't cause the bones in your ear to vibrate. You can also speak in a low voice, because all you have to vibrate are those bones, not the air around you.
I don't have a sense of how sensitive the bone conduction microphone will be yet, but I suspect that you won't have to talk as loudly. As Mitch Ratcliffe of MacWEEK commented, however, it will be hilarious to see gray-suited executives walking aimlessly around the streets, apparently mumbling to themselves like unstable street people.
The first model of the bone conduction microphone will hook to the phone via a cord, but Norris has a wireless 900 Hz spread spectrum model in the works as well, so eventually your phone won't hold you hostage at all. You may not have to slap your chest as do the actors in Star Trek: The Next Generation because Norris hopes to have the Ear PHONE be voice-activated, but one way or another, your personal connectedness will increase radically. Of course, you will then have to decide all the more whether or not you wish to accept incoming calls, but technology seldom comes without some philosophical involvement. I know people who still refuse to have a telephone, and when forced to use one are uncharacteristically rude.
As far as applications of the Ear PHONE go, Norris showed some relatively simple ones and a few more impressive ones. Many of us keep our phone and address information on the Mac now, and some people even use their modems (or a little hardware device from Sophisticated Circuits) to dial the phone. Eventually Norris wants the Ear PHONE to work as both a telephone speaker and microphone and also as a voice command microphone for the Mac. Once we have Casper voice-recognition technology (about the same time we all have Cyclone Macs and a chicken in every pot), I could have the Mac dial the phone with a voice command, and without doing anything else, suddenly be talking to someone, all without fiddling with handsets and keypads and all that. I gather that Apple will also better integrate telephony into the Mac via the Comm Toolbox and OCE, so that applications will have an easier time working with telephone applications.
The more interesting uses of the Norris Ear PHONE include using it as the microphone and speaker in a system from Applied Engineering that will replace the floppy drive in a PowerBook with a communications bay (this is cool stuff, more on CommPort in the future) or in a ShareVision system (incidentally, I received some incorrect information that I used in the ShareVision article in TidBITS-138. Dean Tucker of ShareVision alerted me to the problem and offered to clarify and expand on some of what I said, so look for another article with better information in the next week or so).
One added benefit of the Norris Ear PHONE: those of us with hand and wrist injuries from typing too much will not have to hold a handset. If you haven't experienced any pain in your hands you won't know what I'm talking about, but I find that a long telephone conversation can cause me a lot of discomfort. I could, of course, get a headset, but they are expensive and not always that comfortable either from what Tonya and other tech support people have said. A speakerphone would work too, but you can't have a private conversation on a speakerphone.
You can't buy the Ear PHONE just yet since Norris hasn't started full production runs, but they do have a Partner program that will provide you with an Ear PHONE, technical information from the company, and both phone and CompuServe tech support. It costs $99, and if you're interested, give Norris a call.
Aside from the two minor drawbacks of executive zombies and figuring out to deal with always being available, the only remaining question has to do with RF emissions. I doubt the speaker would cause a problem since hearing aid companies would have tested that, but few other companies have put a radio transmitter in the ear itself, and even the slight distance of a headset radio could reduce the RF emissions enough to eliminate potential health problems whereas an in-ear transmitter might be too close. And of course, it may seriously impact the career opportunities of telephone sanitizers. For that matter, you may not want to share Ear PHONEs with other people all that often... (Norris actually will provide a number of pads to address the cleanliness issue and so people with different size ears can find the most comfortable fit.)
These real and humorous concerns aside, I have high hopes for the Ear PHONE. Norris has to make sure the voice quality of the bone conduction version equals the quality of the unidirectional version, and they also have to ensure that the price at least competes with traditional headsets. If Norris can meet those design goals, everyone will want an Ear PHONE. If not, it will go the way of other niche market electronic devices, including a few that have used bone conduction unsuccessfully even when you inserted the device deep in your ear. I think I'd rather have a Babel fish, but barring that, I'll take an Ear PHONE.
Norris Communications -- 619/679-1504 -- 619/486-3471 (fax)
Jennifer Blome & Randy Granovetter, Norris Communications
MacWEEK -- 18-May-92, Vol. 6, #20, pg. 4