Plantronics is turning the Bluetooth headset market on its ear. Its Voyager Pro UC takes a dynamic new leap that isn't just a better headset, but a smarter one; not just a vessel for mobile phone calls, but a convenient appendage for every manner of voice communication or audio queue. I've been testing a beta version for a couple of weeks. This version has its limitations, a few bugs to work out, and it introduces some questionable cultural intrusions, but the Voyager Pro is also fun, inventive and practical.
Two capacitive-touch sensors tell the Voyager Pro UC when it's on your ear, automatically answering a mobile call or switching between handset and headset mode. Unlike the Savor M1100 (another Plantronics Bluetooth headset), the Voyager Pro didn't let me voice-activate an incoming call. Plantronics says the migration of those features will come, but isn't trivial.
(For a video demonstration of the Voyager Pro, along with other new Plantronics technology, watch the video directly below.)
Nevertheless, a quick press of the easily-accessible call control button answers (and ends) a call. The Voyager Pro does support voice-activated dialing, but only through phones and with carriers that provide that feature.
The sensors go further. Coupled with the Plantronics mini USB adapter, the Voyager Pro works with Skype and Microsoft OCS (or Lync). In other words, I was able to make and accept Skype and OCS calls through the headset; I could also use the headset controls on the call--to hang up, or mute, for example. I was unable to get the Voyager Pro to work completely with OCS running on Windows XP: I could hear those I called, but they couldn't hear me. It worked fine with Skype. Plantronics said they'd only seen this in one other instance, and we never fully resolved the issue after some brief troubleshooting.
What's more, Skype and OCS presence work with Voyager Pro, so when I was on a mobile call, both communication systems automatically provided a busy indicator. If I was making a call with Skype, OCS indicated it was busy, and vice versa (although, because of my problems with OCS, this didn't always work).
The USB adapter supports wideband audio for heightened audio clarity; it also supports sending some of the sensor data between the earpiece and the PC. There isn't a ratified standard in the BlueTooth stack for wideband codecs, Plantronics told me. Certainly when the system supports tablets, the extra USB adapter will be an unwelcome addition; for now, it's so small that the biggest issue might be losing it.
The Voyager Pro is a pretty sexy device as these things go (let's be honest: this is geek bling). It's light (17.6 grams), unobtrusive and includes a lengthy boom mic. That's actually dual, noise-cancelling microphones with windscreens made from special venting cloth. I got between five and six hours of talk time, and the quality of calls was outstanding, even outdoors, even in a crowded bar watching a football game.
It includes indicator lights, showing when you're talking, not connected, not powered on, and charge status. The call control button, power button and volume buttons all let you perform various tasks, like redialing the last number, activating voice calling, and my favorite, rejecting a call. There are many other features, and as with any headset, best of luck remembering how long you have to hold down a button, or whether you have to tap it once or twice. One day I'll get used to it and stop hanging up on people by mistake. (Except that one annoying telemarketing person; that was on purpose.)
Voyager Pro comes with special software that enables constant monitoring of various software systems, including, again, Skype, OCS, but also Microsoft Outlook. I used my Outlook address book to select several key colleagues with whom constant communication could be important, and every time I received a Skype message, an instant message, or an e-mail, I was to be notified.
Outlook sends what Plantronics calls "whispers," or vocal communication representing the e-mail sender and message subject line (in the case of instant messages, the Voyager Pro reads the content of the message). The idea is that while you're in a meeting, or performing other duties, you might want to be identified if an important e-mail comes through, thus providing more control -- but by voice -- over interruptions. The e-mail part worked flawlessly, but OCS still gave me trouble; Skype worked intermittently.
Of course the whisper alerts require constantly wearing the headset, which isn't an uncomfortable experience, just an awkward social statement. Hearing these e-mails, especially in the mechanized speech cadence (a far cry from a whisper), especially when it pronounced "re" as "ray" (in reading the subject line of an e-mail reply), took some getting used to. In fact, in my short experience, I didn't get used to it at all. Still it was convenient when I wasn't in the middle of a conversation with someone. Again, with time, I'm sure I'd get used to it.
Plantronics says that it is working on improvements that will provide more fine-grained control over this experience, like shutting it all off quickly when it gets overwhelming or distracting.
I really liked being able to listen to music on iTunes, and when I received a call (on my mobile phone, or on OCS or Skype) the music paused, and then picked back up when the call was over.
All of this is only available on the PC for now. And it only works with these systems, but it's a damn good start; the possibilities seem endless, like notifications for when you've been retweeted, or alerts on VIP Facebook status updates, or in internal enterprise social networks, like Salesforce.com's Chatter or SAP's Streamwork, for instance.
Not that the constant whispers will always be welcome. Imagine your boss insisting you whisper them, expecting a thrifty response. Imagine your friends crafting creative subject lines to throw you off your game and distract you. Of course you can control this by turning it off or taking off the headset, which I frequently did. But it seems to be an excellent tool for when you want to keep your communications systems running, but ignore them while you get real work done, pausing only for the important people or projects.
Set up is pretty easy. Just download and run the software. You configure the whisper alerts in Outlook, including for Skype and OCS. The Plantronics software is actually an Outlook plug in, so it appears right in Outlook. The quick install guide is pretty helpful, because configuring the system for Skype wasn't quite as easy as setting up Outlook and OCS interaction. Plantronics acknowledged that this part needs some improvement, but it did get the main part right: it automatically pulls in your Skype contacts, so once you sift through the configuration maze, it's as easy as selecting a contact. You can also just manually enter a Skype ID.
Plantronics includes soft phone support for Avaya, Cisco (including WebEx) and Shoretel. It is working on Google Voice support. The company is also looking at Mac and tablet support, especially as those systems become more prevalent in the enterprise.
The Voyager Pro UC sells for a list price of $199.95. Plantronics' page with specs and accessories is located here.
Fritz Nelson is the editorial director for InformationWeek and the Executive Producer of TechWebTV. Fritz writes about startups and established companies alike, but likes to exploit multiple forms of media into his writing.
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