I’m about due for a new pair of glasses. Perhaps I should buy them from Bose.
Yes, I said Bose, the Framingham audio equipment company. No, Bose has not acquired LensCrafters — the company has begun making its own line of sunglasses.
They’re called Bose Frames — cool-looking spectacles that sell for $200 and sound pretty good. Yes, I said sound. This is Bose we’re talking about. So of course their glasses play music. Think of them as see-through speakers.
For about $50 more than the cost of a typical pair of Ray-Bans, Bose delivers battery-powered sunglasses packed with little Bluetooth speakers that pump high-quality audio from your smartphone into your ears, without headphones or earbuds.
It doesn’t seem as if it ought to work — and when you’re in a noisy environment, it doesn’t. But in low-noise settings, Bose Frames sound unexpectedly rich and mellow. There’s also a microphone on board, enabling the glasses to act as a hands-free headset for your mobile phone.
The power button also doubles as a control for your smartphone’s personal-assistant software — Google Assistant or Apple’s Siri. Hold down the button and you can dial phone numbers by voice or ask for the latest weather report.
Bose Frames are available only as sunglasses, at least for now, with no option to add custom prescription lenses. So to test them, I had to walk around half-blind. But I could still hear. And not just Art Tatum piano riffs or Eddie Van Halen guitar solos, but all the usual sounds of everyday life. Standard earphones deliver isolation along with the music, and that’s often what we want. But with Bose Frames, the tunes mix with the ambient noise of the world, adding one more layer of sound.
And yet Bose Frames are supposed to do considerably more. They contain a mess of navigational electronics, including a compass, an accelerometer to measure your speed of motion, and a gyroscope. In effect, the frames can measure subtle movements of your head, calculate your speed and direction of travel, and figure out which way you’re looking.
Why build glasses capable of doing all that? Because Bose is trying to cash in on the concept of augmented reality — the idea of combining digital data with the real world.
AR technology is usually visual, relying on smartphone apps or head-mounted devices like Microsoft’s HoloLens. These project digital images that appear to be pasted on top of objects. For instance, a tourist on Boston’s Freedom Trail would see the names and dates of important events projected onto the places where they happened. But AR headgear is costly and heavy, while smartphone versions look crude and jittery. No wonder it hasn’t caught on.
So why not do AR with sound instead? Someone might create an audio tour of the Freedom Trail that fills your ears with the angry cries of outraged colonists as you walk toward the site of the Boston Massacre and delivers a fusillade of virtual gunshots when you arrive at the exact spot.
That’s the sort of thing Bose has in mind. To do it with precision, the audio software would need your precise location, and data on which way you’re moving and how fast. The navigation chips in the glasses could share this data with the audio-tour app so it knows which sounds to play, and how loud. It could even play directional tricks, having noises seem to come from the left or right, or from behind.
Like visual AR, it seems irresistibly cool. And Bose audio AR isn’t just for sunglasses. The company has added the technology to a couple of its latest headphones.
There’s just one problem. Like visual AR, Bose audio AR doesn’t work. At least, not yet. The few compatible apps that I tested were pretty much useless.
The biggest disappointment was Walc, a pedestrian navigation app that’s supposed to call out landmarks to help you find your way, using data from the Bose Frames to figure out what you’re looking at. Instead of saying “Turn left on Main Street,” Walc is supposed to say something like “Do you see the gas station on the corner of Fifth and Main? Turn left there.”
It’s a great idea. I wish it worked. But instead of singling out big, obvious landmarks like the corner drugstore, during a walk in downtown Boston Walc kept pointing out businesses and people who were nowhere to be seen — probably the upstairs occupants of various skyscrapers.
It’s a shame, but then augmented reality has been disappointing technology buffs for years. Luckily, Bose Frames has a lot more to offer — stylish looks and lovely sound. They’re not that much more expensive than a standard pair of glasses, and the company says it may offer an option to plug in prescription lenses. So while I’m not quite sold on Bose Frames, it’s just possible my next pair of glasses will sing to me.