Crowdsourcing sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo let inventors appeal directly to the public for funds. Sometimes the products being pitched are nearly ready to hit the market. Sometimes they’re just ideas or very early prototypes seeking consumer feedback and funding.
If you’re inspired by an inventor’s pitch, you send some money. It’s not an investment; you don’t get rich if the invention becomes a hit. But you do get some memento — a T-shirt or a discounted version of the invention once it’s manufactured — and the rosy glow of knowing that you helped bring a cool idea to life.
Note: When I posted the original version of this review, I had never seen the prototypes of the OwnPhones working. I didn’t even know that working models existed; all I had seen in person was the hollow 3-D printed shells. The inventor then sent me a video, demonstrating that the prototypes really work. I have updated the review below based on that new information. The video is embedded in this story now, too.
Today’s invention: OwnPhones. These are Bluetooth stereo wireless earbuds, custom 3D printed to fit your ear sockets, based on an ear scan you do with your phone.
The claim: “OwnPhones are custom made to be the best-fitting, best-sounding, most versatile earphones you’ve ever worn. Period. They are the world’s first wireless, 3D printed earbuds custom made to match your personality. They are designed to fit perfectly because your OwnPhones will be built exclusively for your ears.”
Price: $300 and up. (Half price for Kickstarter backers.)
Goal: The inventor, Itamar Jobani, seeks $250,000 in backing. With 20 days to go, the project has already raised $267,000. So this project has already reached its goal.
Status: There are three prototypes. I didn’t get to see them working at our meeting, but Jobani has made a quick video for us to demonstrate:
Several 3D printed earphones have been made (of the OwnPhone team’s own ears). The company has written the algorithms that converts your video scan into a 3-D model:
The consumer version of the video-capture app isn’t here yet, though.
Jobani says that he has a core team of eight people, plus a couple of dozen more who participate as needed (for example, an audiologist who comes by occasionally). He says he plans to rely heavily on corporate partners to get the product designed, tested, and manufactured.
What I tested: I met with Mr. Jobani, who brought a handsome case full of wild earphone designs. He’s primarily an artist (a sculptor), and his vision is that the highest-end OwnPhones models will be jewelry.
I wasn’t able to listen to the OwnPhones or try scanning my ears. Nor could I try a pair from the box, because the existing earphone shells have all been made to fit the ears of Jobani or people on his team.
What I learned: It’s amazing how much money and press attention this concept has racked up; clearly, the public loves this idea. I do, too.
It’s not a new idea, though. Custom 3D earbuds, made just for your ears, are nothing new; companies like Etymotic and UltimateEars have been making just-for-you earphones for years. But ordering them requires you to make an appointment at an audiologist. It costs a lot of time and money. According to Jobani, most of the customers are recording artists and professionals.
Hearing aids, though, have been custom 3D printed for years, he says — 10 million pairs so far — so the technical aspects of his idea are well within reach. Why shouldn’t earbud owners enjoy the same customization?
If all pieces of the OwnPhones master plan fall together, it will work like this:
You’ll download a free app to your phone. You’ll hold a credit card up to your temple (for scale). You’ll move the phone around, and the app will film your ear.
Your ear-shape data will go off to OwnPhones’ servers. To fill in any nooks or crannies missing from the scan, the company will compare your scan to a database of 250 common ear shapes, and fill in any gaps with the best fit from the database.
You’ll have a choice of four models:
• Fit. The base model is just a blob of plastic, in a color you choose.
• Designer Fit. These more expensive models offer some crazy artisan designs, materials, and patterns. (Jobani modeled one for me.)
• Smart Fit. These are the OwnPhones for the gadget freak. Using a phone app, you’ll be able to indicate which environmental sounds you want admitted to your ear: doorbell yes, phone yes, lawnmower no.
You’ll also be able to make a colored LED appear on the earphone’s outer surface that serves as a traffic light for coworkers: Red for “go away,” yellow for “I’m busy but OK,” and green for “Sure, come and chat.”
• Jewelry Collection. Possibly the biggest idea of OwnPhones is making these devices into jewelry. Some examples:
All four types of OwnPhones will be, surprisingly enough, pairs of earphones (you get two) that don’t have a wire connecting them. This is a pretty new idea — individual stereo unwired right and left earbuds. These babies will be much easier to lose.
The bottom line: 3D printing earbuds for each customer is, for sure, a killer idea. Clearly, the Kickstarter public thinks it’s a $250,000 idea.
The company has all kinds of hopes for the final product. It expects that each battery charge will last five to six hours (an hour less for the fancy Smart Fit models). There will be a microphone so you can make phone calls. The sound will be fantastic (“dual driver, balanced armature, premium sound”), which will be helped along because they’ll fit so well, preventing low frequencies from leaking out.
But there’s a long road ahead. Jobani is an artist, not an audio specialist or electronics engineer. He says, though, that he’s allied himself with experts and existing companies who know exactly what they’re doing — a plausible plan.
I wish that I could listen to the finished earbuds, or try ordering a pair using the complete scanning and ordering process, before having to decide to contribute $150 to this Kickstarter campaign. That’s the minimum donation to receive an early-bird pair of OwnPhones when they come out in what the company says will be March 2015.
But I love the ideas behind it. I wish OwnPhones, and its backers, the best of luck.
You can email David Pogue here.