Think about the good ol' baseball cap. It's been around forever. It now comes in every possible flavor imaginable, and it is the first thing that the winning championship team in any sport puts on. So what else can there possibly be left to do with one of these ubiquitous things? Easy -- turn into wearable technology, of course!
And this is exactly what Max Virtual has done with its Cynaps Bone Conduction hat. We won't define bone conduction here, but yes, it is what you've already heard about Google using it with Google Glass to transmit sound, and at its simplest it means utilizing one's skull to transmit sound directly to the inner ear.
Max Virtual itself consists of three teams of people working in three different countries -- Greensboro, NC, Shenzhen, China and Bangalore, India. We aren't completely clear on how these teams came together but we will get to the bottom of it soon.
At its simplest, Cynaps V2 will pair up with your smartphone or tablet via Bluetooth, and will then provide you with very clear audio -- whether spoken voices, music or anything in between. We have two hats in hand courtesy of the good folks at Cynaps and we've been testing them under a variety of scenarios.
These scenarios included full days of landscaping around our house, sitting in row 1 directly behind home plate at Yankee Stadium comfortably ensconced in our Yankee Legend seats and a great deal of noise, in a variety of public places, a few times at the beach, while hiking the Marin headlands in the Bay area and once while sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge and checking out the America’s Cup AC-72s just before they were set to begin racing (that was pretty awesome -- the timing for being both on the West Coast and out on the bay was perfect).
We used our hats in many places in between as well. And we are wearing them and listening to Mozart on iTunes Radio as we write this review.
What can we report back? First, we aren't sending them back -- not that Max Virtual would want our now well-used caps back! Second, they were essentially flawless -- they worked throughout the six weeks we tested them and never lost a beat. The bottom line is that the electronics built into the caps live up to their hands-off, pure wearable tech promise.
Bone conduction works and delivers a sound that is . . . satisfying.
No -- you are certainly not going to get the deep, rich sounds of say Plantronics' BackBeat Go 2 wireless headset (reviewed by Rich Tehrani). That is a whole other thing, and we would never trade in our pair straight up for the Cynaps hat. But they serve entirely different purposes -- and we want both.
Now that we have that settled, let's get back to the Cynaps electronics. The Cynaps control module sits in the visor of the cap. Wires lead from it to a pair of bone conduction speakers residing on both sides of the hat just behind the ears. The electronics are shown below. Once charged, the module controls mobile device pairing through Bluetooth, volume, pause, resume and previous and next song selections. Once you become accustomed to the control locations -- it takes no time at all really -- it becomes a snap to use. It all work as intended - that is about all we need to say.
Listening to music or voice or a phone call through the hat is an interesting experience. Because your ears remain entirely unencumbered you are both fully immersed in your surroundings while also being immersed in your music or other sounds. What is particularly interesting to us is that when your environment and surroundings need to interact with you, your ear instantly takes over and you find yourself fully alert to whatever is happening around you as if the hat were not playing at all -- though of course it continues to play.
It was one of the key things we looked for when out sailing. During calm and not particularly interesting moments the music was always there. When the sails needed to be trimmed and our buddy Captain Ron barked an order, we were immediately right back in the middle of things pretending to know what we were doing.
This ability to be immersed simultaneously in both worlds is a key feature to using bone conduction. We should note that we cannot claim to know if others' ears would "take over" in the same way we experienced it, though our better half claims more or less the same thing.
The other thing of course is that bone conduction is an almost entirely silent operation. Whoever is wearing the hat can hear the music but no one else can. This is just as critical to remaining immersed in your environment as being able to hear everything going on around you -- no one wants to hear what you are listening to and you do not disturb anyone else while you share your environments. It's pretty cool.
Bluetooth pairing with our iPhones was simple, though one of our hats was a bit more recalcitrant than the other on this front. Volume and sound quality can be improved by having the bone conduction speakers in the hat better situated than they otherwise tended to be.
We had to tweak their placement a bit in each hat in order to get the best possible sound, and even then, while the sound was good enough we also knew it could be better, which was occasionally frustrating -- we knew we could go louder but just couldn't get the speakers to sit optimally to do so. Max Virtual needs to find a more optimal way to ensure that the speakers within the hat can be firmly adjusted against one's head - but it's a minor issue and we're nitpicking here to be sure.
Power requirement is another issue though not one that is particularly onerous. We were generally able to get just over four hours of music-playing time on a single charge. Voice-only application (making phone calls-only) easily lasted several days, but really, voice calls are not our main concern -- but keep voice in mind -- we'll come back to it shortly.
Max Virtual doesn't only make the hats. They will also sell the electronics independently of the hats -- meaning that people can create their own customized creations. Want to build Cynaps into your favorite wearable tech bicycle helmet? No problem! The website provides all the details and pricing. Speaking of which, you can currently get three hats and one set of electronics for $79. That's a deal.
There is much more to Cynaps than meets the eye. It turns out that Cynaps - which we can think of as a technology platform - has a perhaps far more important role to play than simply allowing us to listen to music while remaining immersed in our surroundings.
It turns out that bone conduction is able to solve certain types of hearing problems. People typically go deaf due to one of two reasons. The first, nerve-based issues, cannot really be solved through bone conduction (or really any means other than highly specialized and expensive surgery that is not likely to work).The second type of hearing loss is in fact related to bone conduction. The outer and middle ear actually works through bone conduction - the ear uses your skull to hear sound in exactly the same way that bone conduction works.
In the process of testing Cynaps, Max Virtual discovered that people with certain types of hearing losses related to non-nerve bone conduction issues were suddenly able to hear through ears that had stopped being able to hear when wearing a Cynaps hat. Further, Cynaps realized that it could help to restore hearing to literally tens of millions of people with bone conduction-based hearing loss. This is wearable technology operating at an entirely different level.
Following up on this Max Virtual is now moving its Cynaps project in this direction with what it calls Cynaps Enhance -- a project that adds microphones to the Cynaps electronics to pick up the sounds and voices around the person wearing the hat and transmitting them back to the user.
At this point it is well worth our handing off for a few minutes to Mike Freeman, who heads up Cynaps production and pretty much everything else at Max Virtual (he's our own point person as well), and who provided some fascinating insights during his turn during the Demo Forum contest at our recently held Wearable Tech Conference in NYC in late July, where Cynaps won both the event's Best in Show and Audience Choice awards. The video below captures his demo presentation and offers key insights into how Cynaps Enhance came to be and is evolving.
Mike was a bit off in his estimate of when Cynaps Enhance would hit Indiegogo -- he mentioned late August/early September in the video, but in fact the project will go live for funding on Indiegogo in mid-October; look for it then.
Max Virtual has not only delivered wearable technology that delivers on the "fun" aspects of wearable tech. The company has also made a breakthrough to delivering wearable technology that can truly "enhance" peoples' lives in the truest sense of the word. Part of the beauty of the Cynaps platform and technology is that it easily lends itself to these different applications. We love the music. And restoring hearing at price points 30 times less than what is currently possible (refer to the video for more details) is a great achievement and a beautiful thing. Cynaps delivers both.
We wish Max Virtual great success on its Cynaps Enhance and other Cynaps ventures.
Edited by Rory J. Thompson