Sony's "Concept N" is Google Glass Around Your Neck

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If you’ve used Amazon’s Echo as a digital assistant around your house and wish that you can take Alexa, the sassy minion that lives inside the Bluetooth speaker, with you when you run errands, Sony has a solution. The company announced a set of concept wearable devices that allow you to take its virtual assistant, named Nigel, with you no matter where you are.

The devices include a neckband-style wearable speaker device that responds to your voice along with a set of detachable open-ear earphones.

It’s essentially like an Echo that you wear around your neck, and the styling is similar to Bluetooth headphones with a structured collar, like LG’s Tone series. For a more personal— and private—experience, if you don’t want others around you hearing what Nigel is barking, you can plug in Sony’s new open-ear earphones into the neckband wearable speakers.

“Concept prototype ”N” represents a new, unencumbered way to experience audio, with a hands-free and open-ear style interactive interface for accessing music and audio information,” Sony said in a statement. The devices were initially previewed earlier this year at SXSW, but Sony is finally ready to test out the products in the real-world.

Starting today, Sony will begin recruiting volunteer participants to trial the products, provide feedback and help shape the future of Sony’s wearable research. If you want to be on the bleeding edge of Future Lab’s innovations, the price of entry is $100 to be a trial participant, and you must also reside within the San Francisco Bay Area.

“As part of this approach, the program will share concept prototypes with users while still at the development stage, and look to them for inspiration, leveraging their feedback to refine and evolve its projects,” Sony said.

When worn, the Concept N devices provide the wearer with audio information. Like Google Now on Android devices, Nigel can proactively provide you with relevant information by predicting your behavior based on your activity, the time of day and location. For example, if you’re walking by a stadium, it will be able to provide you with ticket information for concerts or other events.

Youi can also ask Nigel for specific information as well. When you’re going on a jog, Nigel can keep track of the distance of your runs, so you don’t have to whip out your phone.

Worn around your neck, N’s proximity to your head and ears mean that it could more discretely pump out audio to you without cranking up the volume to disturb everyone around you. In this sense, N feels more like a personal audio sphere than an ostentatious boombox next to your head. But if you’d rather not share N’s alerts with those nearby, you can plug in the headphones.

The open-back headphone design means that background noise will seep through. By letting in sounds from your surroundings, the design of these headphones keep you aware and attuned to your environment, unlike noise cancellation headphones or earphones.

As a wearable headphone/speaker device, the simplicity behind Concept N makes it attractive. Concept N’s singular purpose of providing you predictive intelligence or on-demand information without the clutter of notifications or barrage of unneeded information that smartwatches often deliver. N’s limited purpose, hopefully, means that the device’s battery life can be prolonged to last at least a full day without requiring a recharge. Sony hasn’t provided any details about battery life or charging.

And unlike a smartwatch, N’s hands-free operations more closely resemble the Amazon Echo. It’s like having an assistant that trails you, no matter where your journey takes you. It’d be interesting to see if Sony can open up N so that other products and ecosystems will work with it.

While you may not want Alexa to be able to open your front door anytime someone asks your home-based Echo to do so, N’s integration with smart locks, for example, could make it easy to enter the house when your hands are full of groceries. Since N goes with you, it’d be interesting to see how N can integrate with smart homes and cars of the future.

For N to be as useful at predicting and delivering useful information without active user intervention, like rivals Microsoft’s Cortana or Google Now, it would also need more access to personal information, like calendar and email.

Both Cortana and Google Now tap your email inbox to provide you with useful reminders, like when to leave for your next appointment to arrive in time given current traffic conditions. The services also provide you with travel notifications if you have itineraries in your inbox, package tracking information and more.

Another device that’s reminiscent of N is Google Glass. Though N looks more discrete than Glass, and it will likely blend in more with its environment, the headphones still lean more on the geek spectrum than the fashion forward end. If Sony can turn N into jewelry, then perhaps N could be more elegantly disguised to be successful in the wearable space.