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LinkBudsA sound experience
like nothing else
in the world,
born from a bold idea

What kind of experiences will people want in the future?
The role of Sony designers is to bring products into being
with that idea in mind, focusing on the changing times and drawing out the value of technology
from inside and outside the company. One example of that is LinkBuds, the truly wireless earbuds released in February 2022.
LinkBuds offer a new sound experience linking your online and offline worlds,
and behind them was a long, challenging journey for designers of seeking never-before-seen
interactive value and being the first to discover the possibilities of an open ring driver,
continuing the Sony team’s plans and joint development with the Business Planning Group and R&D Center.
Here, project members recount that path.

(LtoR) Creative Center, Sony Group: Sachiko Nishihara, Tetsu Sumii, Naoe Kaneta, Tomoaki Takuma

We want to evolve headphones in line
with the diversity of sound

LinkBuds are truly wireless earbuds that achieve a structure that does not cover the ears, thanks to a newly developed open ring driver unit. Their starting point was designers’ awareness of issues.

TakumaI was in the position to supervise all the designs in the audio category for a few years. When we once again reconsidered headphone devices, I was aware of issues like the wear time for closed earphones that cover the ears actually being very short, needing to remove headphones when having a conversation with someone, and activity being restricted while wearing it. The background of that was the widespread popularization of smartphones and music streaming services. Aside from people being absorbed in music, there were social changes like music being integrated into the everyday. For example, people listening to songs to improve their mood while running or during work. Sound information in daily life was also increasing dramatically, typified by smartphone notification sounds.

I felt we had to focus on the changing times and think comprehensively in headphone development for the future, not just about high sound quality but also sound content and sound technology successively introduced in society, as well as real communication with people. For example, don’t we need new headphones we can wear for 24 hours straight, that let us enjoy a variety of content and have natural conversations with friends? Having these discussions with engineers, we made a design with an opening in the center of the sound-producing driver unit to create prototypes of a ring design that allows natural blending of surrounding sounds and voices and, at the same time, demonstrates receptivity to the world around. We proposed this to the Business group, which was LinkBuds’ starting point.

What was the internal reaction to the mock-up?

TakumaA lot of our colleagues said the open ring design was interesting, but that didn’t quite lead to productization. We needed to present the value offered to users more concretely. So, we started working on visualizing how these new headphones would change users’ daily routines. We made a concept movie with the theme “Versatility for 24/7,” pulling together scenes from waking up in the morning, putting in the earbuds, exercising, working, eating, all the way to going to bed. Presenting this with the mock-up made it easier for everyone to comprehend the value and gave the project a tinge of realism.

A designer’s role is
to
bring out technology’s possibilities

Meanwhile, the designers combined the earbuds with sound technology like Sound AR and challenged themselves to create a novel sound experience to expand the possibilities of new headphones that do not cover the ears.

TakumaThe product image we aimed at for these new headphones was a novel communication tool that lets you enjoy conversations while listening to music and also an entertainment tool that captures the appeal of technology like Sound AR. That’s why we used sound-signal-processing technology researched and developed at Sony, like Virtualphones Technology (VPT) that lets you hear sounds as if they are coming from in front and behind, and leveraged the strengths of headphones that don’t cover the ears and blend ambient sound. We polished a plan to create a sound experience like never before, superimposing the virtual world on the real one.

Then we imagined and prototyped three scenarios—an experience improving the sense of presence and enlarging the body by adding sound effects while playing a sport (Sports), an experience having a realistic conversation with someone not present as if they were right there (Communication), and an experience hearing the sounds from an event by approaching a poster on a street corner (Location)—and presented them at an in-house exhibition. Inventing a new interactive value and story by translating technology in this way is an important role for a designer, but what matters when doing it is pointing out a completion goal to the engineers that gets them to want to make this experience a reality. This time, too, the engineers and people involved took an interest in the story, and we developed the product together to substantiate the experience.

NishiharaWhile continuing joint development efforts with the engineers, a team that promotes accessibility and inclusive design*1 across the company approached us about whether we would also utilize the prototype of the new sound experience and its technology in the accessibility field. We worked together with them and members who have visual impairment to create a prototype demonstration of an attraction that expands hearing to let more people enjoy their time, whether or not they have a visual impairment. That demonstration led to "CAVE without a LIGHT," an inclusive-design, interactive exhibit that appeared at SXSW*2 in 2019. Our proposal activities stemming from the new headphones also accumulated definitive results and drove commercialization, like a prototype for theme parks that further developed the "experience hearing the sounds from an event by approaching a poster on a street corner" mentioned before, based on Sony’s Sound AR app,'Locatone'.

*1 Inclusive design is an approach that obtains new insights into designs for all by ensuring that the needs of a wide range of users are understood and included.
*2 SXSW (South by Southwest): The world’s largest creative business festival, held in the United States

"CAVE without a LIGHT," an inclusive-design, interactive exhibit that appeared at SXSW in 2019.

We aim for headphones
linking
your online and
offline worlds

We decided to commercialize the new headphones as LinkBuds. The designers tackled design development to turn the previous prototypes into a product adapted to user needs.

SumiiWould the world really accept the open-ear-style LinkBuds And what kind of people should we approach, in what way? First, we headed to New York, the point of origin for new lifestyles, and interviewed users about their headphones. We received a lot of feedback when we did that. "I didn't feel safe walking in the city with closed-type earbuds," or "I often work while listening to music, but it’s a problem that I can't communicate with coworkers." That confirmed our belief that there was a definite need for the experience offered by LinkBuds of acting freely and being able to communicate naturally with others while listening to music.

Also, when we interviewed young people, music was blended into their daily lives. They were wearing headphones around the clock, while working and when they got home. It wasn't that they were just individualists: they also valued sharing music online, enjoying conversations, and connecting with people. And their way of doing things was further reinforced by the COVID-19 pandemic. Should we offer LinkBuds mainly to the young generation? Project members discussed creating headphones linking the offline world of conversations with friends and ambient sound and the online world of music and sound technology on the internet to make their lifestyles richer, then developed the design.

The ideal for LinkBuds,
beyond limitations

KanetaThe LinkBuds product design strove for earbuds that could fit comfortably in the ear and be worn with ease all day. The first obstacle was how to keep the unprecedented open ring driver unit in the ear. Ordinary earphones support the device with an earpiece plugged into the earhole, but that is not possible with the open ring structure. So, we developed a new way of wearing earbuds that fixes them at three points inside the ear with a loop-shaped fit supporter. There are significant individual differences in the shape of the ear, so we had people of various nationalities try the prototype product, ultimately including five types of fit supporter to firmly support the earbuds in any ear shape.

Prototype of fitting supporters.

KanetaFurthermore, to reduce the toll on the ears, we sought to make the product small and light. We also designed it in a natural shape that fits the ear well and pursued a feel so natural you’ll forget you’re wearing headphones. And by installing a device system, we made the earbuds stick easily in the entire earhole. Finally, we added indentations, so the product follows the hollow inside the ear. We also paid close attention to convenience as a tool, putting on the finishing touches by making the earbuds in colors that fit right into daily life, making the charging case small for easy carrying, and making the earbuds easy to remove from the case with a slanted opening. And, sticking to the design we were fixated on from the initial prototype, demonstrating the ears aren’t covered so it’s easy for people around to talk to you, we rimmed the open ring shape with metal to emphasize that form.

To share values with
the young generation

SumiiIn addition, we fully realized the extent of young people’s environmental consciousness when we interviewed them, and that environmental issues are a topic inseparable from future design. We felt we needed to use recycled plastic in LinkBuds, too. Sony has previously introduced recycled plastic in a wide range of product categories, but this was something big to take on in headphones for everyday use. Asking for cooperation from Procurement and other related divisions, we overcame problems of required quality and cost one by one to use recycled plastic for the earbuds and charging case. We’ve also expressed that the product shares the values of the young generation by adopting a pattern inspired by the texture of recycled plastic.

We want to focus on the future
to richly transform
the everyday

Along with integrating sound technology, like the Sound AR that we worked on in earlier prototyping, in designing the LinkBuds user experience, we worked on developing the dedicated 'AutoPlay' app to transform the everyday.

NishiharaWe want to make headphones that incorporate the fascination of sound technology successively developed within the company. To stick to the idea we’ve had since the project’s early days and improve compatibility with spatial sound technology like Sony’s Sound AR app, Locatone and Microsoft Soundscape, a map deliverd in 3D audio, we equipped the product with a compass and motion sensor in spite of its small body.

Thanks to this, the earbuds detect the orientation of the user’s face when LinkBuds are used in combination with technology like Sony’s Locatone voice app, moving together to the direction where their voice can be heard and giving them a more realistic entertainment experience. In addition, because the earbuds don’t cover the ears, they bring about a sense of everyone having an adventure in a virtual world while talking with friends, telling them "Let’s check out what’s over there."

"Locatone," Sony's Sound AR app that lets you enjoy content by layering virtual sounds on your city walk.

Taking young people’s
feelings to heart

NishiharaWe also focused on how LinkBuds will improve young people’s daily lives as a tool that’s with them every day. We embodied that in the dedicated AutoPlay app, which seamlessly lets offline and online sounds pass through. We reinvestigated how young people come into contact with sound each day when developing this app. We learned that they use a variety of sound content, listening to music or videos while working or doing chores, chatting online in the intervals, to raise their motivation and reset their mood.

"AutoPlay" seamlessly connects online and offline worlds without having to touch your smartphones or headphones.

NishiharaWe want to make it more natural for them to handle sound without taking out their smartphones. With that thought, we created a user experience that understands their feelings, sensing when a meeting has ended to automatically play music, choosing the timing to read aloud things like email information, and more. Some smartphones have already implemented features to automatically read emails aloud, but the importance of that information differs per person. That’s why we’ve taken individuals’ routines and feelings to heart, not sending them notifications mechanically but allowing them even to configure when they get information.

We want to update according to
the changing times
in the future, too

SumiiWe also put effort into communication design to convey the new interactive value LinkBuds offer to the young generation. We made "Digital Surrealism," the expression of imaginary space and one of the design development keywords derived from the interviews mentioned earlier, the guiding principle in creating key visuals and the promotional movie in cooperation with Marketing. We used people who appear in internet media young people notice as models and sought visual presentation that resonates with the young generation’s sensibilities. Starting with a catalog, we communicated LinkBuds’ value proposition and world view in various user communication settings in ways that align with the perspective of the young generation.

SumiiThis communication design is one reason LinkBuds’ sales have grown successfully since their release in February 2022. Buyer reviews show opinions like “It feels like I’m wrapping myself in music while going about life as usual,” and “I also use them at my job and can hear ambient sound to work naturally.” We feel the effect of the interactive value we wanted to provide coming across. But the current mode is only the first step toward the future. We want to evolve the LinkBuds series going forward and update the sound experience according to the changing times.