Out of the box, the Hooke Verse looks like your typical sport headphones. But that’d be a vast understatement on just how unique these things are. Designed by Hooke Audio, the Verse integrates what’s called binaural microphones into each earpiece that allows the user to record 3D audio.
During our recent romp out to Las Vegas for CES 2018, I had the opportunity to sit down with Hooke Audio Founder Anthony Mattana to talk about the company, the Verse headphones, and how they plan to tackle on-the-go audio recording. Mattana, who has a strong background in the sound effects industry on Broadway, hopes his product can do for the audio-recording space what the GoPro was able to do for immersive video capturing. His product is the first step in that process, but, as you’ll see from our conversation, Hooke has the potential to go much bigger down the road.
For now, though, Mattana and Hooke are focused on creating the best user experience and helping people listen to sound differently through the Hooke Verse.
Dealerscope: Just to start, what’s the elevator pitch on Hooke Audio and who you guys are?
Mattana: At Hooke Audio, we like to say we are changing the way you record the world. We're bringing professional-grade binaural 3D audio recording to every device. We believe that you hear the world in 3D and you should be capturing it that way. We naturally are able to know when a sound is coming in front of us or behind us. We should be able to record it that way. The standard microphones on phones today capture mono, flat audio, which is the equivalent of holding a hand over your eye and walking through the world. We have two ears; we should be using them.
My background is in making sound effects for Broadway theater, so I've been immersed in immersive audio from the get go. And I think working in theater as a sound professional I sort of saw firsthand the very limited knowledge that both my collaborators and my audiences have over the true power that great sound brings to storytelling, just like a very clear image or clear video, we need to have great audio. The problem is, the microphones on our phones and the microphones that are available to us are very inaccessible, they're very expensive, and they're not very inspiring. We want to make a microphone that's as inspiring as a video camera is, and that's pretty much what comes to our first product, the Hooke Verse.
The idea or concept for the Hooke Verse, where was it born and what are your goals for the product?
So when I was working on Broadway I had a lot of experience in these types of microphones called binaural microphones. Binaural microphones have been around since the late 1800s, but the current microphones today that exists this way are multiple thousands of dollars, require a lot of adapters and connectors, and they are really not available to the everyday punter. The most amazing thing about binaural audio is that it can be experienced on any two-channel system. No special algorithms or speakers required, you can just put it on YouTube and do it. So when I was sitting there in the theater setting up a dummy head next to me in the seat next to me, I'm thinking, 'Use your head, you dummy. Like what are we doing here? I have a head, I can do this.'
And so when I was trying to fight that battle of saying, 'How do we get people to care about sound?' what I kind of realized was here is a tool that can really get people to pay attention to how we hear the world to tell better stories with it. The problem is I got to make it a tool that is easily accessible to my directors and producers as the light dimmer is on their home when they come in at night. The people who are making this have dimmers in their home, they have auto-stabilization on cameras that focus. We need a microphone that works as easily as a dimmer. And when I knew that binaural could kind of be the format to push to this next frontier, I also then realized no one's going to walk out the door and grab their headphones and their microphones and their phone.
So, I found the opportunity in binaural microphones an amazing audio that's really accessible to all, but knew, how am I going to bring this to someone who maybe hasn't bought a microphone in the last five years? I came to the realization that no one's going to walk out the door and be like let me grab my microphones and headphones and my phone and wrap it on my head. It's not going to happen. And I thought, 'Hey if we bring this amazing technology to a product that people already own at a price that's accessible, a design that's accessible, maybe then we can get people to start caring about sound. And I think you get people to start caring about a format if you inspire them to create it themselves. That's what they need. I need someone much crazier and smarter than me to use this in a way that I never even thought of, and that what we're already seeing. So that's what kind of inspired the design of the Verse.
I like to say they're microphones with built in headphones, but they're a sport pair of headphones, so you're going to pair them to your phone, you're going to listen to music, take calls, whatever you need to do, and if you're listening to music and Godzilla comes busting down 42nd, grabbing that in 3D audio needs to be as easy as unlocking your phone.
Tell us a little bit about importance of the social aspect of the app and being able to see what types of content people are creating and how they're using the Hooke Verse.
The platform truly, and this is not our words, but others calling Hooke Verse the GoPro for sound. I mean, the YouTube channel of GoPro, the creators that were sort of aligned with GoPro to create this new content, it works very similar with the Verse. You have people out there who are using microphones, who are telling POV stories, and just by nature they're making it with the Verse. So we try to really tap into the creators. I come from a creative background, and that's where my team is. You post a video with the Hooke Verse and I retweet it. You email me and I email you back. That's the kind of company I like to run. We know creators. We like creating our content ourselves, and we're just inspiring people to capture better audio. Just by nature of that, that's where all the social support comes from.
Not that there's an end game necessarily for the Hooke Verse, but what is it that you guys are trying to create here with this type of product? What's the bigger picture or vision for Hooke Audio?
I mean, first of all I'm trying to kill mono audio. It's insane. It's 2018. Let's act like grownups. And secondly I'm trying to make microphones as attractive, as accessible, and as inspiring as headphones are today. We sit at a lunchroom table with our high school friends and we're jealous of the guy who has the clearer picture. We're jealous of the guy that has got the better video. Audio should be the same way.
Right now my competition is "good enough," but the way we capture it is that, and I want to be in a world where we care about the audio that we make. We're listening to the audio we make. I think a lot of people don't think about sound because in their back pocket, subconsciously, they know if they hear something cool, they're not going to be able to record it that way. Or we care about video because we know when we see something beautiful, our thought is to grab the camera because we actually can capture it like we see. We can't when we hear it. And that's the world I want to live in.
What kind of feedback have consumers given you on the product?
We started shipping in the summer of 2017, so we've been shipping and selling for about the last six months. The feedback has been fantastic, reviews have been have been awesome. It takes a little bit of education, but when people get it they really start to see what's up with it. We've seen a smattering of makers, like I said, anyone who's bought a microphone—filmmakers, journalists, reporters. We've seen new parents capture their kid's first piano recital or go on vacation with it and remember it.
A big mission for us, and what we're doing also, is our partnerships with the National Federation for the Blind and Perkins School for the Blind. Blind users have used binaural microphones for decades. It's how they capture their home videos. Recordings that shed directionality for the visually impaired are useless. I've had people tell me that they can capture their home videos now on their smartphones. So that's been pretty amazing. The amazing part is watching you know the creative things that people are deciding to use it for. We've had a great response. I can put this on a person's head, and I can sell a unit. Our biggest difficulty right now is, whether it's a paid media or it's a video—we like to say, hearing is believing, and what's really rewarding is that when someone hears it they do. So I'm pretty happy with the response.
Are you trying to target a certain consumer or user with this product, or is it something that you think everyone can use and get something out of?
Well, there's a difference from what I think we should be doing and what I want to be doing. I would, of course, want everyone to own this. But the reality here is there are definitely people at the base, early tech adopters, who know about mic recording and they'll do it, the same way the early guys who bought a GoPro were using video cameras or knew about video capture, but then the guy with the two kids in a leaf pile in Ohio bought one. So, we're validating with those guys who are already buying microphones today, but there's no reason why in three years every pair of ear buds shouldn't have microphones in them to record 3D audio.
Is that the next step for you? Obviously you have the Hooke Verse, but are you looking to partner up with other headphone manufacturers to get this technology integrated into other products?
It's possible. We have a proprietary Bluetooth recording codec. So, the reason we have the app and the way we do it wirelessly—we had to do a lot of work on the backend to make something like this possible. Android and iOS operating systems are natively set up to not be able to receive multiple channels of audio over Bluetooth. There's no standard—it's like a simple line of code that the operating systems could implement but they don't have it. They can send two channels of audio but they can't receive it.
So we built not only really the first Bluetooth binaural microphone, but we build the first Bluetooth microphone. There's no Bluetooth codec that allows a stream of 20 to 20 kHz of audio at 24 bit 48 K than the Hooke Verse does. So the apps work as the sort of intermediate to make the handshake with our codec. And we've definitely had a lot of interest from bigger audio companies who are interested—every major audio company has got their iPhone mic or their Android mic, and they should all be wireless. So, you know, there is some interest from there. It's not our main business right now. I'm in the business of selling Hooke products and developing more. But it's going to make sense.
So for now, then, what’s the next step in terms of development for you guys? Where do you see this product heading?
Right now you can capture recording in the Hooke Verse app, and you can listen back, and you're sort of forced to the perspective of the recording. You hear what they hear where they turn their head. Imagine an experience where then you could move your phone, playing back the Hooke recording using the accelerometer on the phone and moving it with you. Head tracking, VR capture, and live streaming VR is everything that we can integrate into our app and we'll use in our products.