As an avid weightlighter, Dr. Eric Hensen knows how annoying earbuds can be at the gym. Hensen, who is also an ear, nose, and throat doctor, watched as the tiny headphones slipped out of sweaty ears and got tangled in machines. For athletes and gym buffs, traditional earbuds just aren't cutting it. So Hensen decided to reinvent them.
"There's a guy who I work out with—he does bent-over rows, and he always puts the wire in his mouth while he lifts,” says Dr. Hensen, who is the founder and chief medical officer of wireless earphone maker FreeWavz. "Inevitably, he'll bite through the wires once a week."
Hensen says he wanted to design a safer and more comfortable earphone for athletes that would fit snugly and comfortably in the ear and work without tangling wires. He took a look at current listening device design and ultimately came up with a prototype for the FreeWavz headphones, which connect to an audio source via Bluetooth and are designed to stay in the ear even through rigorous exercise.
"I took a set of these really old hearing aids, and I kind of retrofitted them to our idea,” he says. "From there we actually drilled [them] out, made our own housing, put all the components that we wanted in it."
In an early iteration, the earphones included a built-in MP3 player, but FreeWavz soon heard from potential customers that they’d prefer to listen to music they already stored or streamed of their phones. FreeWavz can pick up audio signals from a phone up to about 33 feet away through Bluetooth networking, he says.
Bluetooth technology’s being integrated into a number of wireless headphone designs lately, from the tiny Earin earbuds to other exercise-focused tools like the Dash earbuds. Dr. Hensen says FreeWavz, in particular, were developed to include all the exercise-centric features the company could pack into its ear-fitting form.
“The MP3 player got dropped because none of our customers wanted it,” he says. "That allowed us to incorporate even more stuff that we wanted."
Taking out the MP3 player and storage left room to add more fitness-oriented components to the earphones, including an accelerometer to track motion and a pulse oximeter to track heart rate.
Through a connected smartphone app, users can program the earphones to automatically announce stats like distance and heart rate throughout their workout or when they cross certain thresholds.
"There's a lot of power in getting information and having it fed to you audibly without any visual distractions or safety issues,” says FreeWavz president Harry Ericson. A software development kit will ultimately let other developers deliver audible notifications through the headphones, too.
The earphones also include support for hands-free phone interaction and calling, and each earpiece can be configured independently to blend outside noise with audio content in a particular ratio.
"There are two microphones—one you talk into and one that's on the earbud that allows you to pick up sound in front of you, behind you, or to the side of you, depending on how you program it," Ericson says.
That’s of particular importance to cyclists, who want to make sure they hear traffic sounds while listening to music, says Dr. Hensen.
"When you're going with traffic, you can program the left side to pick up as much road sound as you want,” he says.
Users can also independently configure volume and equalizer settings on each earphone, which Dr. Hensen says will be useful to anyone with different hearing levels in different ears. And, they can save multiple profiles for different exercises, so they can tune out outside noise and skip updates on distance traveled while lifting weights but still hear traffic sounds and mileage numbers while riding a bike.
FreeWavz is in the midst of a Kickstarter campaign and hopes to ship the first earphones by October, says Ericson.
"We've got the core functionality done and it's really now moving toward production,” he says.