When Apple first released the iPhone, Steve Jobs didn't call it a pocket computer. It was marketed as a phone.

That's a key point that entrepreneur Noah Kraft makes when talking about his own product. Kraft is the CEO and co-founder of Doppler Labs, a much-hyped San Francisco startup that on Tuesday is finally shipping its first product: the Here One headphones.

Like Apple's own AirPods, the Here Ones are tiny, Bluetooth-enabled, completely wireless earbuds. Each one is only a tad bigger than a marble, and when you wear them, they sit snugly in your ear.

One big selling point: Here Ones are capable of smart listening. That means that as you play audio, you are still able to hear ambient sounds, such as your boss calling you. If you're on an airplane, for example, you can set up the device to block out engine noise but allow the pilot's voice to come through. If you are at a loud restaurant, you could use the earbuds' directional hearing capabilities to have them pick up and emphasize only the voices of the people at your table.

In several ways, the Here One is like an in-ear computer. The goal is to essentially build the type of wearable, speech-commanded computer featured in the movie Her. But like Jobs, Kraft is not about to promote his product like that.

Jobs "was able to get people to adopt the iPhone, start carrying it proudly, have a really cool alternative to a flip phone, and then build on that," Kraft told Inc. "Frankly, we want to follow a very similar roadmap."

The Here One is now shipping to its earliest users, and this spring, the device will go on sale at retailers. Reviews of the $299.99 gizmo have thus far been mixed. There is quite a bit of excitement around the product and its potential, but reviewers have encountered some issues, most notably with battery life.

With the Here One, users will be capable of smart listening, but new features will roll out slowly over time. One of the more fascinating, if far off, capabilities of the Here One is a feature called real-time translation, which does exactly what it sounds like: instantly translates speech from other languages.

"Language is audio, and it's a pretty amazing thing to do, to alter language," Jeff Baker, the company's vice president of research and development, says.

When Doppler Labs first started to think about the things they could do with their device, removing ambient audio and replacing it with audio of your choice was among the first ideas, says Baker.

"We think that translation is one of the most powerful tools that our product could provide," Kraft adds.

Kraft and Baker envision a future where you could have two businesspeople talking in different tongues as their Here Ones convert the other's speech to the language he or she understands.

Doppler Labs is not the only company working on this technology, but they already have a working demo, which I got to try in December. As a Doppler Labs employee spoke to me, the Here One in my ear translated his words with only a half-second delay. The translation wasn't perfect, but the spirit of his communication came across. It was among the few demos in 2016 that truly blew me away.

Doppler Labs--which has raised $50 million and has a team of 75 employees--is banking on real-time translation as one of the product's killer features. Just as various apps on the iPhone led consumers to go out and upgrade from flip phones, Kraft and his team are betting that features like this one will make people ditch their white, wired headphones.

"You can have translators or people on your team, but there's nothing like hearing it translated in real time for yourself," Kraft says. "For anyone starting a business, being able to break down communication barriers would be a huge competitive advantage."

Doppler Labs is ambitiously hoping real-time translation will roll out as an update to Here One users by the 2017 holiday shopping season. An early 2018 release is more realistic, but before that, the company has much work to do.

For starters, the company must figure out how exactly it will make the necessary processing power for real-time translation work in a mobile form. During my demo, the company used a suitcase filled with four desktops to make the feature work. That won't be possible for real-time translation on the go. The company hopes to optimize the technology so a user could use the feature via their phone. More likely, Doppler Labs expects it will sell consumers portable computers the size of a deck of cards. Those mobile PCs could come preloaded with a consumer's language of choice and connect wirelessly with the Here One.

"Think about it as a spillover compute engine," Baker says.

For now, the Here One is not much more than slightly smart headphones, but as the Doppler Labs team cracks away at features like real-time translation, they hope they'll be able to build out the vision of an in-ear computer.

"We think that the ear--whether we're able to accomplish that or someone else--is going to be the future of how we compute, and voice will be the main interface," Kraft says.

Published on: Feb 21, 2017