New Apple patents hint at a headphone, music revolution

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The real reason behind Apple’s $3 billion buy of Beats may be a plan for an epic mashup of music and tech by combining the hardware of headphones and Beats Music software.

Two notable patent applications published Thursday suggest that Apple could be thinking along exactly these lines.

The patents in question refer to “Ear Presence Detection in Noise Cancelling Earphones” and “Electronic Devices and Accessories with Media Streaming Control Features” — describing two systems in which headphone sensors can be used to detect the presence of a particular user and offer them specific (and potentially revolutionary) functions.

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These might mean stopping streaming media from Apple’s iTunes Radio or Beats Music when a set of earbuds or headphones are removed from a user’s head, and instantly resuming playbook whenever they’re worn again. It could even, in another iteration, allow earphones to be shared by multiple users, with each user getting different content.

“Our media delivery systems are digital, so making them to react intelligently to the listener and watcher is a small step,” says Alexis Kirke, Research Fellow in Computer Music at Plymouth University in the UK, and a noted authority in this field. “No more skipping over tracks you hate, or searching the video streaming channels for something you feel like, or flipping around as you get bored. The machines will know you and how you are right now. The harder job is providing the machine with eyes and ear — non-intrusive sensors to understand what their human owners are feeling.”

While part of the appeal of Beats Music is its curated setlists, Apple could potentially use smart recommendation algorithms to sense a user’s emotional or physical state and stream them an appropriate soundtrack.

The move is in perfect harmony with the Cupertino company. From the 1980s on, Apple products have always been customizable compared to other products on the market. With the advent of the Mac’s G.U.I. in 1984 it meant changing the names and location of folders — or perhaps naming your own hard disc. In the 1990s, the first generation iMac let you decide whether Bondi Blue or Flower Power better described you as an individual.

Beats could be the impetus to rethink the headphone from the ground up. After all, it would be a great way for Apple to live up to its reputation as the music lover’s tech company.

Here Apple’s plans for incorporating accelerometers, capacitive touch sensors, force sensors, acoustic sensors and ultrasonic sensors into earphones could help set it apart from competitors. This isn’t the first time a tech company has tried this: Intel’s previous inclusion of a heart rate monitor in headphones provided excellent opportunities for people to hack together ways of modelling an owner’s mood and activity — shuffling tempo, genre and playlist according to whether it was predicted you were relaxing on your sofa or out on a jog.

Sound quality is one thing. But headphones that intelligently stream music to your device; not just when you want it, but predicting what you want also — that’s something else entirely.

And it’s an area Apple, thanks to Beats, could genuinely innovate in.

Are there any other features you think Apple could adopt to make its headphones the best on the market?

Drop us a line in the comments box below.

  • Z Odbuster

    As long as the iSheep feel it’s COOL.. they will buy it.. bahh bahh bahh

  • Eric Constantinides

    2 things I need in good headphones: great sound and comfortable. So far, Apple hasn’t delivered on these 2 fronts. Hopefully with Beats they can but I really hope they can figure out the basics before adding all this tech that isn’t worth the much to me if they don’t sound very good and fall out all the time.

    • Anthony Snyder

      Personally I think Apple should just buy Skullcandy.

    • http://www.soundgrenadestudio.com/ Wojciech Pawluczuk

      so right now they should buy Beyerdynamic also – just to have someone who knows how to make good sounding and comfortable headphones ;) but please – don’t! let them be fugly, non-famous things for pro market!

  • https://twitter.com/JesusHSmith Jesus H Smith

    Why use headphones to judge mood? It seems pointless to me when there are so many biometric sensors available elsewhere (say, iWatch). And detecting the wearer’s identity also seems like a worthless exercise for the masses as extremely few people share headphones – they’re a personal item.
    Still, I’m looking forward to what they’ve got in mind, but I wouldn’t buy headphones based on these elements alone. Focus on sound quality and comfort then worry about the rest.

  • imajoebob

    I’d like to see them “innovate” an affordable pair of head/earphones. When you’re main marketing scheme is convince people – especially young, low-income people – that they have to have $200 headphones as a fashion accessory, that’s not an entrepreneur, it’s an amoral reprobate.

About the author

Luke DormehlLuke Dormehl is a UK-based journalist and author, with a background working in documentary film for Channel 4 and the BBC. He is the author of The Formula: How Algorithms Solve All Our Problems, And Create More and The Apple Revolution, both published by Penguin/Random House. His tech writing has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, Techmeme, and other publications. He'd like you a lot if you followed him on Twitter.

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