These Sci-Fi Headphones Don't Need a Phone, Know What You Want to Hear

Audiowings' "smart" luxury headphones. 

They use cellular or wi-fi, they know what you're nodding at, and they're aiming at Beats.

Carl Thomas came up with the idea for web-connected "smart headphones" after a couple of unfortunate workouts at the gym. "I was constantly getting tangled in the wires, so I bought a pair of expensive Bluetooth headphones," the director of Bristol-based tech and luxury goods startup Audiowings tells Billboard over Skype. "After about six weeks of using those, someone stole my smartphone."

From his frustration came a solution: a pair of smart headphones that connected to users' music libraries via wi-fi, eliminating the need for wires -- or a smartphone. Thomas brought his solution to Ben Mazur, director of product design house Ignitec, which created a 3D-printed Audiowings prototype. "It's a good way into a very expensive industry that allows even the smallest businesses to demonstrate the technology to investors," says Mazur, who adds that the novelty of 3D printing technology helped garner them press attention.

3D-printed Audiowings prototype.

Though smart headphones have been attempted before, Thomas' venture has the backing of Sir Richard Branson and the Virgin startup team: Audiowings won the "People's Award" at Sir Branson's 2014 "Pitch to the Rich" competition, which brought in a small amount of funding. Since then, Thomas has been negotiating with investors and musicians ("one of them has won a BRIT Award and the other has an album in the top 10" is all he would say) to fund a U.K. launch of Audiowings in September, followed by a U.S. sales push in early 2015. Recently, the company launched a Crowdcube crowdfunding campaign and is recruiting people to test prototypes of the product's user interface at Goldsmiths College at the University of London.

Though the stateside market is crowded with artist-branded luxury headphones, from Beats by Dre to DJ Khaled's recently launched Bang & Olufsen line, Thomas is confident his novel technology will stand out -- even if, at around £300 ($514) a pair, they're a steeply priced.

Audiowings headphones connect to music that users can upload to a cloud, which the headphones communicate with via a 3G network or wi-fi (Thomas hopes the next edition will have 3G connectivity built into directly the electronic design). The final product (which will not be 3D-printed) is almost science-fictionally intelligent. There have been discussions with electronic manufacturers and software developers on plans to create a platform to access user information using data from streaming services like Spotify and Deezer. With these data, Audiowings will be able to customize recommendations based on contextual cues like the listener's gestures and postures, the weather and time of day, and their musical preferences.

Like a smartphone, Audiowings' headphones come with location positioning software and an accelerometer. "If they see an advertisement for a Tinie Tempah album or U2's latest album, I would tell the headphones I'm giving them permission to access the content advertised by nodding in the general direction of the advert," says Thomas. After sensing that gesture, he continues, the device would read the poster's coordinates and find the relevant Spotify, Soundcloud, or Deezer link, which it would then stream for the user.  

Ultimately, Thomas hopes Audiowings technology, through its unique software and applicaiton programming interface (API), will end up in every headphone companies' cans. "That's really going to be our main revenue stream," he says, "but because no one's making smart headphones at the moment, we need to make the device to show off the capabilities of the instrument." He aims to have a functional model of their contextual platform and its app available by November.

"It basically gamifies the way people gather content, based on what's around them, in real time," says Thomas. "It transcends listening to music."