Bluetooth Headsets Get Smart With Sensors

Once upon a time, not very long ago, you could stick a Bluetooth headset in your ear and, if you performed the correct magical incantation on your mobile phone, the sound from a call would be wirelessly transferred straight into your head. Headsets have not only gotten a lot easier to use, but they are becoming a lot smarter. The latest trick: Incorporating sensor* technology.

I tried out two new very different headsets that use sensors* to automate key functions, the Jawbone Era from Aliph and the Plantronics  Voyager Pro UC (Version 2.) The Era is the latest in a series of stylish jawbone headsets. For the Era, Aliph partnered with MotionX, the latest brainchild of industry legend Philippe Kahn, to replace buttons with gestures.

To pair the $129 Era with a phone (or a computer, tablet, or other Bluetooth-equipped device), you just turn it on and give it a four shakes. Exactly what you do next depends on the other device, but that’s it for the headset. To answer a call, you tap the headset a couple of times. A couple more taps terminates the call.

Motion sensing is not the Era’s only trick. I also features a redesigned speaker for much greater audio fidelity. This doesn’t do much for ordinary phone calls, where quality is severely restricted by the 8 kilohertz of bandwidth the phone system allocates to voice calls. But the improvement is  considerable when you are using the Era for high-bandwidth  voice over IP calls or to listed to recorded audio streamed audio. In theory, you can use it for music, although I think most people will continue to prefer stereo headphones for that.

The Era also inherits a bunch of features from the earlier Jawbone Icon, which remains in the lineup at $99, including the ability to upgrade its software and download apps through Aliph’s MyTALK service. The Era supplements the Icon’s numbers-only caller idea with spoken names through MyTALK. It also claims an extra hour of talk time to 5.5 hours per charge.

In contrast to the stylish Era,  the new Voyager Pro UC, due out later in this quarter, is all business. It retails the familiar Voyager Pro design–a unit that sits behind your ear with a microphone boom that extends down your cheek. It won’t win any design awards, but it is extremely comfortable for all-day use, and you definitely do not have to worry about it falling off.

It’s when you take the Voyager Pro off, though, that it gets interesting. The headset senses whether it is on your ear or not. When you are wearing it, calls to your phone are automatically routed to the headset, When it’s off, they aren’t. And when you put it on mid-call, to connection is instantly rerouted to the headset. Instead a motion sensor, it uses a capacitive proximity sensor to tell when it is near your face.

The new Voyager Pro also includes a wealth of features for integrating with computers, including a large variety of PC-based softphones. It connects to a PC using a special USB dongle. This is a bit annoying, but it makes pairing automatic and avoids the vagaries of PC Bluetooth (for now, unfortunately, the software is Windows-only.) forthcoming software will add additional tricks, including the ability to have the subject line of incoming Outlook emails read over the earpiece.

The development of cheap and tiny  sensors  makes it easy to add  detection capabilities to a wide variety of gadgets. I suspect these two new headsets mark the beginning of something interesting.

*–An earlier version said that the Voyager Pro used a motion sensor rather than a proximity sensor. This required corrections in several places marked with asterisks.


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