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Alphabet’s moonshots division, X, is quietly working on a top-secret augmented reality device that would give people enhanced hearing abilities, Insider has learned.
The project, which is internally named “Wolverine,” is a nod to the comic book mutant’s heightened sense of hearing, according to four former employees familiar with the details, who asked to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to speak to the press. The team started seriously working on the project in 2018, the sources said, and in that time it has gone through multiple prototypes and gained the favor of executives like Google cofounder Sergey Brin.
An X spokesperson confirmed that it has an early-stage project “exploring the future of hearing” but would not comment on the details of the project.
Sources say the Wolverine team is developing a device intended to be worn in the ears and packed with sensors. Its technology could have several applications, one of which — and one of the biggest early challenges the team set out to solve — would be speech segregation, letting the wearer focus on one particular speaker in a group setting with overlapping conversations.
A lot of the early work has been on “nailing the physics,” including the placement of the microphones, one of the former employees said.
However, sources stressed that Wolverine may not be just one device or application, should it become a successful business. One recalled a meeting where a Wolverine team member emphasized that the project needed to go beyond speech segregation. Insider could not learn of what the other applications might be.
Wolverine has been through many iterations so far — sources described crude early versions of a device which covered the entire side of the ear or protruded out from above the ear. Accommodating a large array of microphones has been one of the big hurdles of Wolverine, sources say, and the team’s more recent designs are smaller.
Sources say Wolverine has been spearheaded by Jason Rugolo, a former ARPA-E director who joined X in 2017. The group has also pulled in industry experts including Raphael Michel, founder of hearing aid company Eargo, who joined the project as a business strategist.
Simon Carlile, a former VP of Starkey Hearing Technologies, is the tech lead on Wolverine, two sources said.
Tech companies such as Bragi and Doppler have attempted similar ideas to Wolverine with their own smart earbuds, but AI hearing aid startup Whisper is closer to what Wolverine is trying to achieve, one source said. Whisper, which emerged from stealth last October, uses a “sound separation engine” to optimize noise for the wearer’s surrounding environment.
Wolverine could become an Alphabet business… one day
X, Google’s moonshots sister company, was created to pursue new money-making businesses focused on bigger problems. Google’s self-driving car company Waymo and the recently deceased internet-balloon business Loon were both spun out of X and into standalone companies.
Because of this, sources say Wolverine would need to prove it is a viable business with a revenue path, and would likely not just be one single device. All sources stressed that the project is still in the early stages and subject to change — and could even be killed entirely.
But Wolverine has risen inside X thanks to Rugolo’s ability to sell its potential to the higher-ups, one source said.
Astro Teller, the head of X, got a demo of an early Wolverine prototype in 2019, as did Brin, former employees said.
While Wolverine is making strides, there is no guarantee it will ever reach the outside world and become a money-making project for Alphabet.
Moreover, the spectre of Google Glass continues to loom over any new X project, especially those dealing with augmented reality. Glass, an ambitious face-worn computer developed inside Google X (before it was spun out under Alphabet), debuted in 2013 to huge fanfare, but was met with stinging reviews, privacy concerns, and lackluster adoption. X continues to develop Glass for enterprise environments, but the project in its original vision was discontinued shortly after its launch and largely seen as a failure.
There are signs Alphabet may have growing confidence in Wolverine. X’s “chief storyteller” Courtney Hohne hinted at the secretive project in a recent interview with Pioneer, describing a project “related to the future of hearing.”
Sources have confirmed that Hohne was referring to the Wolverine project, though it isn’t the only wearable project happening inside of X right now. One source said another team is working on a glasses-like device codenamed “Heimdall,” named after the all-seeing, all-hearing Norse god.
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