Apple Patents Context-Sensitive Hearable Technology

The next version of Apple’s AirPods may automatically adjust what the wearer hears, according to a new patent filing. The “contextual audio system” described in the patent would use artificial intelligence to determine whether to change the volume or noise cancellation systems.

Context Listening

The patent describes a way for earbuds to identify a wearer’s location and what’s going on around them to determine if the audio settings need to be adjusted. As an example, the patent suggests that being near traffic would cause the earbuds to lower their volume or hit pause in one ear, accounting for the direction people habitually travel with relation to traffic.

“Generally, the contextual audio system employs different types of data to determine a user’s location and/or activity (both of which are examples of “context”) and adjust audio output of the wearable audio device portion of the system,” the patent explains.

The patent also suggests the hearables would understand what the user is doing. In the illustration above, the user is on the road and using a bicycling tracking app, so the earbuds might adjust to let in more environmental sounds with the transparency mode already available on the AirPods Pro as a manually activated option. The description also posits combining the earbuds with other devices; in the example, a smart yoga mat is connected to the earbuds, to better map the user’s posture and balance.

Hearing the Future

Apple has been continually updating the features of its AirPods to respond more intelligently. The new iOS 14 arriving this fall adds spatial audio to the AirPods Pro, mimicking a movie theater and making the audio react to head movements like the sound is happening in three-dimensional space around you. The tech described in the patent might need more advanced hardware, but the principle is the same as the way the hearables sense if they are inserted into an ear or not.

Rumors about Apple’s next round of hearables have swirled all year. That includes high-end over-ear headphones called AirPods Studio were at one point expected to be announced in June, but now may arrive in the fall, as well as an entry-level version of the AirPods Pro, supposedly called the AirPods Pro Lite that may have been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Where the contextual response capabilities fit in that ecosystem is hard to gauge. It’s only a patent, so any device with the feature may not appear for some time. Still, it suggests a shape for Apple’s wearable ecosystem that will adapt to people’s activities.

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