Friday, September 12, 2008

BT Headsets Stumble On

I remember walking in to work at Nokia that morning in what must have been 2001 or something like that, and thinking Leon looked like he had gone kinda nuts, talking into thin air like that. I saw no wire to his phone so he couldn't be using a headset, and I figured he must be rehearsing a presentation. Later when he came upstairs he showed us the Bluetooth headset. We all kinda wondered about it. It seemed to have advantages, but still, you looked kinda stupid with it hanging in your ear, and even worse using if the ear it was in was out of view.

Of course, all of us clearly underestimated just how much people would want to look like techno-freaky Borgs, or just simply didn't mind if they did. Very soon after, while I was beta-testing a Bluetooth phone myself, the test manager gave me a headset to play with too. I wanted to use it like the receiver of a phone: when my phone rang I would turn it on and put it in my ear and talk. Alas, BT does not allow that: in the time it took to switch the headset on, find the paired phone, and getting ready for the call, the call would have gone to voicemail. Ok, I'll leave it on then, in my pocket. Alas, the headset assumed that if it was on it was in your ear and thus would only ring softly, and the phone would not ring at all because it was on headset profile. I considered the headset useless then, as I did not want to look chained to the phone. It's bad enough to work for Nokia in that respect anyway.

And thus the usability and style of Bluetooth headsets remains really unsolved: they are too fumbly to leave in your pocket to pull out when you need them, and no matter how beautifully designed, if you leave them in your ear you're still that person looking chained to your phone. The LG Decoy is a phone with a BT headset attached to the back. When you pull it out, the phone goes into headset mode and the headset is ready to use, but I wonder if you can actually use the headset to pick up a call and start talking, like when you lift the handset off the hook on a phone. I'd like to go back to that model of interacting with phones; no small buttons, no fumbling, just pull the headset out, put in your ear and talk. Ok, and maybe then keep it there after the call is over when you are driving. I guess we need headsets that know whether they are in your ear or not so they can ring as required.

Meanwhile, I only have a stereo BT headset these days. One that I can plug my own earbuds into and clip the unit with the mic to my collar. The sound quality is good, and the whole experience is kind of ok, including how it switches between music and a call, but the buttons are fiddly and the voice-dialling never works for me anyway on the N73. What bothers me is that it is so limited since it will only work as a headset for one phone and headphones for either that same phone or an A2DP audio player. Just one? As office workers we have multiple audio sources to juggle: landlines, mobiles, Skype or SIP, iPods or other music players, and the sounds the computer makes. I know the technology is not really up to it, but I'd really like a wireless headset that can just handle all these so that the beeps of my computer come through just as my music from my player does, and if any phone rings I can easily pick up (or make the call go away). All audio would have to be mixed together so the levels match, and when I walk away and only take my phone or my player for some kind of break, the pairing to the devices I walk away from just drops silently without locks or interventions, and return when I am in range just as easily. BT headsets need to be transparent. I have to isolate myself from the cacphony of the modern open-plan or cubicle office, yet I have a lot of audio streams to monitor, and no desire to be juggling what goes into my ear when, nor should I have to in my opinion. Someone get to work and make this.