Thomas Howard: When we started thinking about Nothing, there was this idea of “owning” transparency. We’re not going to win the technology race, that’s for sure. But if we want to even have a chance, we have to get really good at engineering. So let’s finish with the facade, get rid of everything on the outside and turn inward, because that’s what matters.
From a distance you’re intrigued but things seem simple enough, and then slowly, when you start looking at the surface, that’s when the details of the product come to light. But, again, we weren’t sure what kind of problems transparency would cause.
E: Most important was the glue to fuse the two sides of the transparent case. We’ve gone through many, many, many iterations, even until last week, to find the right balance. If you do it wrong, you will see glue all around the edge. It will therefore no longer appear transparent. Instead, it will be broadcast. It unbalances everything.
We’ve tried alternatives to glue, different kinds of laser welding, ultrasonic welding, things that could be more yield-friendly, but of course it’s a learning process for us. It just wasn’t at the top of our minds [when we started], but for future products, this is now the first thing we think about.
Carl Pei: The rate of return on Ear 1 is only 50 percent. We want to bring it to the 90s. We are improving day by day.
Is that why you didn’t choose to make the headphones or the case completely clear? Is it just too hard and you get such a high production failure rate?
E: We set ourselves the challenge of revealing as much engineering as possible on Ear 1 and the case. But you should strive to make products as neutral as possible. They need to feel balanced and not yell “engineering” at you. We therefore choose to obscure, or wrap, certain components, so as not to harm or distract. That’s why we have this big white block inside the case. But we’ve done everything we can to make it transparent.
CP: Many of us weren’t inspired by the mainstream technologies that look more and more alike. It was important to find a design language that we could stick to. Jesper [Kouthoofd, founder and CEO of Teenage Engineering] showed us a picture of the Sony museum where there was a bunch of goods on the wall. You could see a coherent vision. Businesses today don’t really have a design vision, they just do what’s hot every quarter.
The trick is to find something different that is also desirable, but not just different for fun. Pure transparent design, where you see it all on the headphones and also on the case, does not meet this criterion. We want to make the products accessible to more people. It would have been very niche if it was completely transparent.
Ear 1s vs. AirPods Pro
What is it with all the points? The dot logo. The texture dots on the case. The red dot on the right earpiece.
E: We were trying to cut ourselves out of jobs that we didn’t like. We had to design a logo. We wanted the look to be industrial. Then … [Howard pulls out something that looks like a large gun.] It’s amazing, this stuff. This is what they use to mark pipes in industrial environments where you cannot print on them. A kind of ink spurts out. But it’s basically a dot matrix. We thought, let a machine design the logo for us. See where this road takes us. Then we started using this typeface for a lot of things.