17 August 2011

Earbuds always breaking? Use modular design.

As a computer scientist (or perhaps more accurately, something in between a scientist and an engineer), I am always thrilled to see one of the core concepts of my discipline pop up in the wider world.  In this case the concept is modularity - a continuum describing the degree to which a system’s components may be separated and recombined [see linked wikipedia article for citation].  Now, modularity well predates computer science - Henry Ford relied on it in building his auto empire and the idea wasn't new then - but we've definitely made it our own (G-d, I can't imagine what hell it must have been to program custom assembly code for each task, or perhaps I can and simply don't want to).

In the past couple of months, I've been occasionally providing advice to the Ironbuds Kickstarter project (not paid, I'm just really excited about it, although I will hopefully get to beta test their stuff down the line) that addresses one of my personal peeves - my earbuds are always breaking.  Since I got my first smartphone, I've continually been disappointed in the durability of the earbuds I need to use the thing efficiently.  All I need is something that project sound into my ears and collect sound from my voice while leaving my hands free.  Sounds simple, right?  In actuality, not so much.

Over the years, I've gone through literally dozens of pairs of earbuds/headphones.  I've had bluetooth ones that hardly worked from the get go, other bluetooth sets that were really nicely designed but didn't hold up - the Plantronics Voyager 855 had a really neat design, but shoddy construction and when it broke after a couple of months, it had already been discontinued!  I've tried a variety of wired headphones: from the crappy buds Apple includes with the iPhone to, most recently, specially ruggedized JBuds J4M.  Most of these broke within a couple of months:  an earbud stopped working (or completely disintegrated in the case of Apple's lovely buds), the microphone died, the cable attachment to the buds or jack loosened.

Now, I'm not going to claim I'm the most gentle fellow on my hardware.  I'm physically active, travel often, and fairly wired in.  That said, I don't walk around smashing my stuff with a mallet ;-)  My average laptop lasts me 4 years and I only buy new cellphones because my contract is up and I see something enticing.  So why can't I keep a pair of earbuds for more than a couple of months before they belly up?  Probably because (1) they aren't made to last, (2) even if they were, it is likely that eventually one of their many subcomponents will fail, and (3) for earbuds, when subcomponent fails the entire item becomes essentially useless.

This is clearly a pain economically (I've spent hundreds of $'s just on earbuds/headphones).  I do want to recognize that some of these companies are really great in replacing their product - particularly the folks at JLabs & Skullcandy, and the J4's hold up better than any I've seen yet.  However, there are only so many times I want to go back to customer support and ask for replacements.  Moreover, it is so wasteful. These things take natural resources to make and, so far as I know, just get dumped in a landfill, where they can eventually leach poison into my great-grandchildrens' (or someone else's) food and water.  Finally it is just plain lame, which irritates the engineer in me.  Modern design should be able to produce something better.

That's where modularity comes in.  If one were to simply design headphones so that each individual subcomponent could be plugged into the others... well if one component broke, it could be easily swapped out  by the user for a replacement.  Less cost, less waste.  Moreover, this kind of design would have immediate benefits w/ respect to unexpected jerks and pulls (ever got your cord stuck on the doorknob or had your phone fall while you were plugged in?).  Instead of the maximum instantaneous load being borne by the cord (no matter how large), on a sufficiently strong pull, the connectors will just separate and you can plug them back in later!  You can think of this as being a kind of circuit-breaker for physical stress - which I'm guessing will result in less breakage.  I'm very much looking forward to getting my hands on a pair and playing around!

It shouldn't have taken decades for modularity to make its way into headphone design, but, then again, consider the economics.  Breakable/disposable stuff can be sold again and again = $$$ for companies.  Stuff you can repair yourself = $ for companies.  Companies like $$$.  Hence no modularity.  Platforms like Kickstarter let folks like Thomas Young, who has worked in the industry for decades and is now co-founding Acoustic Forge to produce products like Ironbuds - modular, kit-based earphones, obtain funds from folks like you or I, sidestepping those blokes in the corporate offices who are trying to convince you to buy a disposable refrigerator and bathtub ;-)  I'd recommend checking it out.

1 comment:

  1. Wow!
    That's the best idea I've ever heard!

    I just checked their website and they're giving away eartips for free!
    Where do I sign?

    PS: Kickstarter rocks, there are so many nice projects over there