…Meanwhile, in 2027: 5ally runs her forefinger up the embedded metal grid on back of her ear, turning up her music and drowning out the annoying yammering of her parents trying to tell her to pay attention…
You’re soaking in it!
Music is streaming around you right now in the air. Music is, after all, something that we can encode into small pieces and send out riding on any sort of wave (AM, FM, Wi-Fi, Photons, whatever… gravity?) to something that can reconstruct those bits into movement of the air pressure near your ears – your ears will perceive the music.
We’ve already come a long way: only a few hundred years ago somebody would have to physically play an instrument near you for you to hear it… People started a system of writing music on paper, the first encoding: a piece of music could be sent to another location and then played, albeit still by a person with an instrument. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that someday got the bright idea to record the actual changes in air pressure that were being produced by the player. Then they could use their recording to change the air pressure in another location and the sound would be reproduced.
Same as it ever was…
Basically everything we’ve done since then has followed this same idea, whether or not there is an initial recording of air pressure differences anymore. So what does it take to hear? Once they figured out that all it took was some wave motion near your eardrum, we’ve gone through a zillion ways of getting those waves there.
Wax cylinders, magnetically encoded wire, tape with magnetic particles, 78rpm records, LPs and 7″ records in mono, then stereo (oh, right, there are TWO ears), cassettes, eight-track tapes, CDs, oh man… and then we separated the information from the media: just the files, no more physical product (ok, maybe those files are still actually magnetically encoded on your hard drive…)
5ally’s dad still has some of these things sitting on a shelf in the garage.
Where did the sound go to? Mostly speakers. They can move the air. Then we got small ones, right next to our ears. Oh wait, we could actually make them smaller and stick them right in our ears. Waves don’t need to be very strong if they’re right next to the ear drum.
But that earbud needs to be getting its signal from somewhere. Right now we’re hooked into the relatively bulky digital-to-audio converters, like our computers or phones or iPods. These guys are taking the bits and converting them to voltages that are used to move the air near our ears by the earbuds. What if we get the earbuds themselves to be the D-to-A converters, picking up the radio streams in the air? I guess we’d have to program them to pick up certain stations we like… or be in charge of sending our own (potentially encrypted) music from our own hard-copy collection somewhere else in the world, or maybe pick up Pandora on that promised ubiquitous wi-fi cloud covering the entire earth.
The problem is, I hate earbuds. They get uncomfortable. How about just implanting the antenna into your earlobe, like an earring? Run the wire to a small flat speaker grid inside your ear canal. Permanent music, all you have to do is turn it on and you have your personal music right inside your ear.
Well, one thing that earbuds do that this won’t is isolation. A little speaker grid in your ear canal is a nice energy efficient way of moving the air near your eardrum, but other sounds can come right in too… What if we bypass the whole airwave thing, everything we’ve based music on up till now—we’re just recreating it with voltages anyway: let’s run a wire straight to the cochlear nerve. You could control exactly how much of the outside world you hear, how much of the music stream.
…we should probably encode the controls on the back of your ear to accept only your own finger! Otherwise a nice lover’s caress might end up being deafening.
…Of course, 5ally is already bored, looking into the next step, bypassing the hardware altogether: It involves music modulated directly onto her brainwaves.