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The Next Big Headphone Innovation Isn’t Better Sound, It’s Built-In Rumble

by Mike Futter on Feb 23, 2016 at 08:18 AM

We’ve all talked about feeling the rumble of the bass at a concert, a movie theatre, or with a home surround sound system. Having that sensation directly transmitted to my head as I demoed in-development haptic headphone technology convinced me that tactile sensation might be the first major personal audio innovation in years.

The headset in question is the Taction Kannon. Launching this holiday, the Kannon is a closed-back headset sporting 40mm speaker drivers in each earcup (gaming headsets typically offer 40mm or 50mm). The larger the driver, the heavier the bass, but also the more intense the distortion.

In addition to the acoustic speaker, there’s a haptic driver in each ear. As the tone gets lower in frequency, there is a hand-off that happens between the two. At the higher end of the audible bass range, you’ll get both the audio and the haptic vibration. Once the frequency dips out of auditory range, the haptic driver takes over and transmits sound as physical sensation.

While testing the Kannon for a brief amount of time, I listened to music to get a feel for what to expect. The handoff was seamless, as the vibrations took over. The sensations weren’t jarring and the audio wasn’t distorted even at higher intensity. Instead, the tactile sensation complemented the music, giving it additional dimension.

For game testing, I used a YouTube video of Halo 5 multiplayer. A processed video isn’t going to give the same dynamic range as direct output, but I still got a sense of what to expect.

Halo’s Spartans move with purpose, footsteps heavy on metal walkways. With each pounding footfall, a small vibration was pushed through the haptic driver. It gave added weight to the gameplay, and even though I wasn’t playing myself, helped pull me in.

According to Taction Technologies, the addition of haptics improves reaction time by 15 to 40 percent, an average of 60ms, according to former MIT research scientist S. James Biggs, Ph. D. (Biggs is also on Taction’s executive team.) If confirmed by independent research, the impact to gaming would be significant. The idea is that feeling incoming fire in conjunction with hearing auditory cues would improve player response and reaction to in-game stimulus.

My interest in the technology also bridges over to virtual reality. I have not yet had the chance to use the Kannon in conjunction with VR, but given the enhanced immersion I felt just while watching a video, I’m eager to test the headset out while using the Gear VR or Rift.

Taction is planning to run a Kickstarter this spring. The Kannon is due to hit stores later this year at the $499 price point.