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How Those Tiny, In-ear Wireless Headsets Work: Picking Up Your Voice and Filtering Out Noise

Posted by Paul Desmond

May 18, 2015

small_in_ear_wireless_headset

A few weeks ago, I had the chance to connect with an old college friend who was in town on business.  When I saw him from across the hotel lobby, he was deep in conversation, apparently with thin air.  As I got closer I realized he had a tiny, in-ear headset connected via bluetooth to his mobile phone, which was in his pocket.  When the call ended - and after a quick bro hug - we had a conversation about how, with a device that small and with a microphone that is far closer to the ear than the mouth, these things actually pick  up what the speaker is saying and deliver high quality audio.  (Note:  We didn’t have a clue about how they actually worked, but talked a good game)

And it’s not just my buddy.  The fact is these headsets are being used more and more for unified communications applications and on-the-go by mobile workers, salespeople and executives . Researchers at Frost & Sullivan expect UC-enabled headset revenue to reach $1 billion in 2020 with an estimated compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 20.4 percent from 2013 to 2020.  Check out this infographic for details.

So it seemed worthwhile to get to the bottom of how these things actually work. To do so I talked with Henning Toft Schwarz, a product marketing manager at Jabra, which knows a thing or two about tiny wireless headsets.

Triangulating for Good Voice Quality

Different companies have varied approaches to how they pick up voice. Some rely at least in part on vibrations in the user’s jawbone as they talk.   Jabra has a different approach that varies somewhat depending on the headset in question.

As a starting point in the discussion, Schwarz made it clear that voice quality is always better if the microphone is closer to the mouth; there’s no getting around that.  That’s why headsets for office workers and contact center agents  have boom arms of varying lengths.  But what about those in-ear devices?

To filter out noise other than the speaker’s voice in the small, in-ear headsets, the key is to have more than one microphone. The trick lies in software algorithms that essentially measure sounds coming from the mouth of the user, which take a specific time to travel to the microphones that are placed a known distance away in the headset. Background sound (noise) can be filtered out since it “looks” different than voice sound. On top of this microphones can be adaptive, allowing for measurement in different directions depending on the surrounding noise.  In this way you can obtain significant noise suppression and filter out everything but the speaker’s voice, Schwarz says.   

For example, white noise, background conversation and street noise are all clearly understood by the software, and the algorithm is designed to recognize those and cancel them out.

Another big issue is wind, and this can be harder to address.  Some models of wireless headsets, such as the Motion UC, have a small extendable boom arm and shield around the microphone that protects it from wind.   “Mitigating wind noise is intimately connected to design,” he says.  “Where the microphones are placed and having a shield around them that directs wind away from the microphones can make a big difference.”  When it comes to even smaller wireless headsets with shorter booms (or even devices that are in-ear only with no boom arm at all, like some developed for the military) the positioning of the microphones and the sophistication of the software makes all the difference.  

Use Cases for In Ear Wireless Headsets

The technology keeps getting smaller and better – and acceptance is growing, too. Nobody bats an eye when they see someone walking down the street wearing Apple ear buds. Schwarz says it’s just a matter of time before wireless headsets will become common.

I suspect he’s right because the uses cases are many. Mobile knowledge workers top the list. These are folks who use a UC solution in the office, increasingly with a soft phone. They can now use the same headset to connect to that softphone as well as to their mobile phone – and transfer between the two without dropping the call. Consultants, salespeople, financial services professionals and anyone else who is frequently out of the office make great candidates for such technology, Schwarz says.

Somewhat surprisingly, he says craftspeople are likewise using the wireless headsets.  “They need to have their hands free because they can’t work when they’re holding a mobile phone,” he notes. “If they’re spending an hour on the phone each day, they’re losing an hour of work.”

Let’s just hope they decline the calls that come in while they’re in line at the coffee shop. Or at least they keep their voices down and trust that the technology built into their headset will allow them to speak in their inside voice.

Topics: Technology, Voice, Headsets,