With the global pandemic hitting us in 2020, many companies were left having to quickly adapt to a new remote working style. It’s hard to imagine a time without Zoom or Teams calls. But for Jabra, who have long been at the forefront of innovation around communications technology, they’d had their eyes on the trend toward remote working for a while. Jabra is an audio and video communications technology company. They develop and manufacture state-of-the-art audio devices like wireless earbuds, headsets, intelligent hearing aids, and video conferencing solutions.
Jabra’s wireless earbuds are full of sophisticated technology from beamforming microphones to advanced active noise cancellation, even wind cancellation, as well as earbuds that are tested to be the toughest in the world. One of the latest developments is spatial audio, in collaboration with Dolby, which goes beyond traditional stereo to add a new dimension to the listening experience. The sound isn’t just left or right, it’s 360. GN, was founded by Carl Frederik Tietgen more than 150 years ago. Tietgen started the company with the very challenging idea to place the first telegraph line between China and Scandinavia. Since then, it has been focused on communication. Think of the challenges you would have had making the first telegraph line between China and Scandinavia – you’d have to be pretty innovative. With that sort of history, it has always been a core part of what Jabra does.
Morten Urup, Vice President of Consumer Products at GN, has been working with product development for the last 25 years. He said, “I think the challenge becomes how you make sure that the innovation you do is not just for the sake of innovation, but for the sake of the end user. We see large tech companies out there also doing well – and we’re not underestimating that – but it seems a little bit more of a race to have the most features. We would like to see ourselves as a company that not only does tech innovation but delivers the right features and also making sure they work. Others did true wireless earbuds before us; they just didn’t work as well. Others also later built-in heart rate sensors, but they didn’t work quite as well. So how do you transfer this innovation into something that is that is useful and valuable to the end user and keep that focus?”
Jabra has been growing and focusing around innovation within communication with a significant focus on hybrid work. Where a lot of companies were quite challenged during the pandemic, Jabra thrived. The company had been monitoring the trend of hybrid working for years – then all of a sudden you had a pandemic that accelerated that hugely, and everybody needed communication solutions for their home so that they could keep working. Urup recalls, “That worked in our favor, having those solutions ready and having an awesome supply chain that managed to keep delivering solutions throughout the pandemic where others were more challenged than we were. A lot of the focus has been on delivering and developing the world’s best solutions for hybrid work.”
Wherever else you go you will have some sort of background noise. The sound lab is one of the places where you can measure the internal noise in devices by removing everything else. These anechoic chambers have an array of speakers which give 360-degree coverage. Standing on a wire grid, the user is placed within a complete sphere where the sound can be meticulously controlled, enabling the team to reproduce various sound environments. It’s an extended version of the 5+1 speaker system you can have at home, but a 49+4 speaker system. This enables the engineers to reproduce any sound again and again. “Reproducibility is super important,” says Urup. “When you tweak somewhere in the code, in the algorithms, whether it’s transmitted so that all the recorded sound can be found, or whether it’s noise cancellation algorithms that you’re tweaking, being able to then have a reproducible result when you say, ‘So, what was the result of that?’ is important. You need labs like this to be able to do the same measurement again and again. Here we can control the variables.”
At the IFA conference in Berlin in September, Jabra launched the Elite 8 Active and Elite 10, their most recent in a long range of true wireless devices. This small earbud is designed to sit in the ear canal comfortably for hours without needing additional support. Miniaturizing them to achieve comfort has been a significant focus area, as was the focus on durability. “Those of us who do some sort of sport have most likely at some stage had a set of earbuds that died on us because of sweat,” explained Urup. “Sweat is surprisingly aggressive when it comes to electronics. We have managed, over the years, to build some super durable products. The latest is by far the toughest we have done, so Elite 8 Active is a super tough set of earbuds. We have been putting it through various very, very harsh tests from highly accelerated corrosion tests to various military tests. We know we can vouch for super great comfort and we can deliver equally great durability.”
One of the later innovations within sound technology has been the fact that you can create a 3D sound or spatialized sound. Urup explains, “Think of a center line down the middle of your face. That is where the music from standard stereo earbuds meet – that is kind of where it sounds like it is so in the middle of your head. That is where the sound is. Spatialization, or 3D rendering of sound, means that you get the feeling that you’re pulling your speakers out of your ears and you’re starting to hear different instruments, but definitely hearing that the sound of music coming from around you instead.” It has been proven through various studies that it is a more natural way of listening, just like you would be if you were listening to external speakers or a band playing – it is external, not coming from inside your head. In terms of the technology, it is to externalize the sound or spatialize the sound, pulling it out of your head in that sense, and making it a more natural listening experience.
When we consider future innovation, there are a lot of things happening right now. As with any other tech company at the moment, there is no doubt that AI has to come up. If we look at, for example, conversations and communication in general, there is no doubt that one of the places where AI is showing very, very high potential is the ability to recognize what is voice and what is noise. As soon as you have an AI that recognizes voices from noise, it can very efficiently remove the noise. The next generation of that is recognizing your voice. Imagine it takes a “fingerprint” of your voice, and then recognizes it compared to other voices, then it can super efficiently remove those other voices, meaning we could have crystal clear conversations in pretty much any environment. You will be able to, in most trains, have a decent conversation without your friend necessarily noticing, but in the future, that will be to a degree where she would have no idea where you are.
But some people don’t like that. Some people prefer that you have a level of background noise so that I do know that you’re on the train, you are on your way home. I think that becomes one of the next levels where you say, “Well, we can do it, but should we do it just because we can?” Or, “What is the right balance of utilizing the AI to remove noise versus filtering through a little bit of irrelevant noise?” Because it might be a better experience for you and for the person you speak to that they know where you are. So again, there are opportunities in this tech, but there is a balance to strike of how to use it properly.
There was a time when a headset was a relatively simple design based on simple geometries that was straightforward for both the designer and the engineer. But today, Jabra headsets are based on super-organic and much more complex designs with as few straight lines as possible. PTC’s 3D CAD solution Creo is an important part of this. When you look at something small, particularly a little earpiece, or even a small headset, it’s hard to fully appreciate, unless you talk to the engineers who do the work, just how complex the engineering is to produce the kind of audio that they are trying to produce with such small speakers in such a small amount of space. You hear about all their initiatives around spatial audio, and you know there’s a lot of engineering know-how that’s going into producing these earpieces and headsets.
It ultimately means exceptionally precise control over the flow of the surfaces in these devices because we all know sound is pressure waves. And so, those pressure waves are influenced by the geometric surfaces of the Jabra devices – and if you don’t get it just right, you’re not going to create that audio field that the user of their devices wants to enjoy as part of their listening experience, whether it’s music or a conference call. In Creo, the best way to get precise control and incredible flexibility over the surfaces for this kind of application is to use a module in Creo we call ISDX – interactive surface design extension.
The ISDX module of Creo allows design engineers to control everything about surfaces. They start with curves, they build surfaces on those curves, and they can really control the flow and the curvature of the surfaces as they connect. These surfaces are parametric surfaces as part of the overall Creo design package, so designs that are a part of the overall headset package that may be put together with traditional modelling methods like extrusions and sweeps can be associatively connected to surfaces built with ISDX that have that precise control for those types of surfaces that you want to interact with the sound waves and give you that spatial audio technique. This blending of super-organic precise control over surfaces that are intended to guide the pressure waves to give you the audio effect, blending that with the types of surfaces you might put on the outside to interface for the switchgear and so forth on their headsets, is easily done inside Creo. It’s nice to see Jabra taking advantage of those technologies to deliver best-in-class audio experiences for their customers.
Huge thanks to Morten Urup for showing us around the sound labs at Jabra in Denmark.
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This is an 18Sixty production for PTC. Executive producer is Jacqui Cook. Recording by Lærke Sivkjær. Sound design and editing by Clarissa Maycock. And music by Rowan Bishop.