Bone Conduction

There is something appealing about the way that a tiny piece of technology can radically alter your experience of listening. Bone conduction - just the name sends a slight chill down my spine. It sounds like a metal spike tapped straight into my skull, conducting electrons beneath the skin. The very idea of bone conduction forces me to become conscious of the calcium structure that holds my flesh upright. 

The technology uses your skull to transmit vibrations to the inner ear all the while leaving your ear canal unobstructed. You can hear the environment around you in addition to the sound playing through the headset. Music, a podcast, or whatever it is - bone conduction casts sound as a layer over your experience. 

Bone conduction has been used in hearing implants for decades, but we're now seeing a lot of commercial bone conduction headphones coming out, making the technology popular for everyday listening. I just picked up a set of bone conduction headphones, and I find myself walking around listening just for the sake of listening. Listening to two worlds overlapped on each other.

We are used to donning headphones and tuning out the environment in order to listen to a piece of music or a podcast. That requirement, to eliminate the surrounding environment, actually prevents me from enjoying a lot of digital content. I simply don't want to tune out my immediate environment. I like being available to people, even on a crowded train full of strangers. 

Furthermore, the city is full of interesting sounds. Could the soundtrack you walk with be an augmentation of those found sounds, rather than a replacement of them? Much the same as driving while playing music in your car with the windows rolled down, the soundtrack of moving through the city is a multi-layered experience with bone conduction.

I'm also fascinated with this grafting of technology to the skull, as an augmented ear. These cross-sections from a Chinese company's audio site seem to suggest that a tiny device can hack into the inner ear and re-program what we hear.  Audio parasites.

Also: this creepy photo which recalls a David Lynch film...

The way bone conduction works is most clearly exhibited by plugging your ears while listening with bone-conducting headphones. It's almost magical. Fingers blocking the ear canal, you can still hear the sound coming clearly through the bones in your head.

Bone conduction offers a way forward for me in the coming onslaught of virtual reality. Don't get me wrong, I love the feel of full immersion in the VR that I have experienced so far. But I'm more interested in how a virtual experience can successfully be layered over our analog experience. Bone conduction allows a co-mingling of real and virtual sound that itself is a largely unexplored, undesigned experience.