How many times did you struggle to hear someone on the phone because of the ambient noise? Talking at the phone in the club or the subway is going to be less of a hassle, if a new technology pioneered by Japanese phone maker Kyocera goes mainstream.
This week in Tokyo, Kyocera unveiled the Urbano Progresso, a smartphone that sends sound waves directly to your inner ear, bypassing the eardrum, through the means of tissue conduction. Cool, but what’s that? Tissue conduction happens when sound travels to the tissues in your head (like skin, bone, muscle, etc.) It happens all the time – when you speak, some of the sound waves that you emit travel through your head to the ear. Because tissue is denser than the air, your voice sounds to you a bit lower than it really is. And now you know why you sound funny when you hear yourself recorded.
Tissue conduction devices work in the same way. The Kyocera Urbano Progresso’s display vibrates to create sound waves that are transmitted to your inner ear when you press the phone on your ear. In essence, the phone itself acts like a low powered speaker, but instead of a membrane, it’s the actual screen that vibrates to emit sound waves.
The sound waves then travel through your ear and skin (as well as through the air in your ear) to reach the cochlea, the part of the ear where tiny motion sensors detect vibrations and translate them into a nervous signal that goes to your brain.
According to Jeff Blagdon from The Verge, who enjoyed some “ears-on” time with the device, the Urbano Progresso works as advertised. He was able to clearly hear the phone conversation while in a crowded ballroom. It was not clear to me if the phone also has a normal speaker, or just the tissue-conduction “speaker”, but he did comment that he could hear it from a small distance without pressing it against his ear.
For people constantly working in noisy environments, this innovation could prove a real differentiating feature. Of course, the Kyocera Urbano Progresso would be dead in the water if tissue-conduction would be all it brought to the table. But the device is actually a pretty good smartphone. Features include a fairly old Snapdragon S2 MSM8655 chip, but overclocked to 1.4GHz, a 4-inch AMOLED screen, 4G, NFC, and a 8MP camera, all topped of with Android 4 ICS. Along with that, come some funky Japanese-specific features like a built-in TV tuner.
For now, the Urbano Progresso will come to Japan this summer, but Kyocera promised that the tissue-conduction technology, dubbed Smart Sonic Receiver, will come to the US next year. I am not sure what that means, but this is exactly the kind of innovation that I’d like to see more from phone manufacturers.