In June, I went to the MIDEM. There I met Anthony Mattana, founder and CEO of Hooke Audio, an US startup that wants to be a “GoPro for sound”. On Kickstarter he collected more than 163,000 US Dollar for that idea. Anthony, who took part at the Midemlab startup pitch, explained me how his 3D audio recording earplugs work and why not only I will be a big fan of to capture sound the same way my ears capture sound around me.
Tobias Schwarz (TS): How did you come up with the idea to build headphones that are not just playing music but also are able to record it?
Anthony Mattana (AM): I’m from New York and the last five years I have composed music and sound effects for Broadway theatres. So my background is in making very immersive surround sound audio and when the show closed, my design was gone. I was trying to find a way to capture that design, because there is nothing like being there in the theatre, nothing like being there at the live show or seeing the musical. So capturing it in a way that after the show you could relive something that I was very interested in.
That was when I discovered this type of recording technique called ‘binaural recording’. It is not necessarily a new thing, it has been around for decades. I was using 3.000 to 7.000 US Dollars on bulky lots of equipment set ups to capture this and it’s great, binaural audio is amazing. The minute I started using it and only in a professional setting I said: ‘You know, there’s gotta be a way I can make my snapchats in binaural audio, Facebook, on my phone, social media, this could be implemented to so much more than just theatre.’
If you look into the technology behind binaural recording, a big part of what makes it happen is placing a microphone specifically in each ear. We already got something that goes into our ear every day, and that is our pair of headphones. I was hoping to get sound back into the conversation, to more than just a certain utility. I wanted to enable people to be creative with sound like they are on Instagram with photos. They should put it in the device they already own, a pair of headphones. So you’re not adding a piece of gear, you’re just operating it at a price that anyone can afford.
TS: Is this a thing streaming companies saw yet, to use your technology to record for streaming?
AM: It is possible, it is on our product rim now, it’s something we are in development on, whether the streaming comes through our app or sides arms or apps like Meerkat or Periscope. They are doing this live stream videoing in cooperate our technology. The exciting part, the fact that Hooke is doing this audio on your smartphone opens up the fact that it’s a smartphone, which means its data, so it’s streaming. Right now, we are focusing on the product and getting it out there and getting people to record. But through the app or through someone else’s app, it’s evident, so it is going to happen.
TS: You will launch in the US first?
AM: Well, we launched the kickstarter project in September, in fall of last year. We shipped and sold to over 49 countries, so we are excepting pre-orders all around the world. We are manufacturing right now and will be shipping this year.
TS: Also to Germany?
TS: We had a big debate about Google Glass and how somebody can secretly record you on video. Privacy is a big topic in Germany. I think, it can even be an innovation killer sometimes. Did you have this ‘German debate’?
AM: Totally! It was a big priority for me, because one side of the audience came to me and said: ‘Amazing, you mean no one will know if I’m recording them?’, others were saying: ‘Don’t do this!’. I would never implement a technology that people didn’t know if I was recording. That is a big thing for me!
The main power button on the Hooke headset is designed like this: you have one button that functions very much like your Apple headphones. It plays music, pauses music, all those kind of things. When you power that on, it will light up. When you are recording, it will light red, like the universal red recording symbol. Anytime I am recording and the mics are engaged, that is lit up red. Anyone from any far away if they see some sort of light coming from the ear know that I’m recording. It’s very important for me that people know if someone is recording them simply by showing the light.
TS: Could it be a problem recording if you have long hair and there is hair above the headphones?
AM: Yeah, the same way if your hair is right in front of your camera lens. It’s actually the same way.
TS: How do I know if it works or if the quality is good?
AM: If you are going to have hair in front of your lens you are going to be able to sort of see through. It works the same way as if you are going to have hair in front of a microphone you are going to be able to hear a bit through it.
TS: Why have there been no efforts to build something like that from a bigger company?
AM: A lot of the bigger headphone companies have tried, but they tried at a time when our computers were not in our pockets. They were not nearly as powerful as they are now. We have seen a lot of innovation being here then and now on our smartphones even in the last two years. We have seen a huge search in headphone uses just in the last three years alone. A pair of headphones is sold every five seconds. Any 48 hours a 1h-video is uploaded. 50 per cent of video now is consumed on mobile devices.
So those three factors and because of watching and streaming more content on mobile devices, this type of technology requires headphones and a computer. They tried it at an earlier time for this to be innovated on a smartphone and for it to be wireless. The wireless headphone market is not a new thing. People enjoy wireless headphones. So the timing is just really right for putting it in headphones and putting it from the phones.
TS: Who will be the typical Hooke user? Who will buy it?
AM: Our big market so far have been early tech adopters, creators, DIY-users, sound engineers, producers. They all are guys that are creating content not in totally professional settings but are getting hired to record bands outside. The massive community has been the visually impaired, the blind community. The blind community has expressed tears of joy over this and they discovered us.
A couple of months ago, I started getting all these tweets and messages, asking: ‘Where is the microphone placed, can you tell me how the earbud fits?’ Then I thought, it’s evident, it’s in our pictures on our website. But they said: ‘Thank you for the effort, but we are blind. We love your product, though.’ I thought that was interesting.
Another thing they said: ‘Our home videos can be captured on our phone now?’ Which is for them, they own every binaural microphone and they see binaural recording as their home videos. They translate their blindness that way and they have never been able to do it on their phone. So for them to have access to technology, something that they already use a lot, but so much more accessible, more affordable and on their phones. And the share is huge. They said: ‘Whatever we can do to help.’ It has been really amazing.
TS: So it is more like a tool than a lifestyle product?
AM: You could say we are a lifestyle company now, depending on how our audience reacts. The product hasn’t been shipped yet and we don’t know what our audience is. We know that we have sold over 1.500 units in the last seven month from our kickstarter project, but who is to say what will happen once people have this in their hands?
And I know, every time I talk to people, it is like: ‘Woah, I know the chef of that company. He puts a GoPro on his head when he’s cooking and he’s showing his perspective while he’s cooking, he should use these.’
Lot of these products are coming from someone else much smarter more creative than me using it in a way I never even thought of. So right now I see it as a creative tool or what kind of company we are – Lifestyle Company – I think it will depend on our audience how they start using it. We will see what happens.
TS: We are living in a time where data is key and data is worth. Are you collecting data with the headphones? Do you collect what the people are listening to and what they are recording? Where they are recording?
AM: I’m not interested in this. I come from a creative background. I never even thought about it. For us, and I think that is what seperates us from the big companies, we want to bring sound back into the conversation. I want people to be creative with sound. I want to enable people with audio and I want them to know sound is more than something – I record a video and I throw a ‘Hail Mary’ and everything is clipping – I just want people to care about sound.
TS: Thank you, it was a pleasure to meet you.
There is a German version of the interview on Netzpiloten.de.