How Apple’s wireless EarPods could change the way we hear everything


Could Apple’s wireless EarPods use hearing aid technology to offer holographic sound, augmented-reality Siri and superhuman hearing?
Could Apple’s wireless EarPods use hearing aid technology to offer holographic sound, augmented-reality Siri and superhuman hearing?
Photo: Graham Bower/Cult of Mac

Recent reports suggest Apple might ship wireless, noise-canceling EarPods with the iPhone 7. From a hardware perspective, these headphones would be very similar to hearing aids.

With the right feature set, these devices could change the way we hear digital audio and pave the way for transformative new audio experiences for everyone.

Are wearable manufacturers digging in the right place?

Now that Google Glass, Apple Watch and various fitness devices have gotten us used to wearables, it’s time for smart audio devices — or “hearables,” as they have become known — to grab our ears. Several such successful Kickstarter projects launched at CES earlier this month, and most aren’t targeting people with hearing loss.

Bragi’s Dash earbuds stream music wirelessly from your iPhone, but they also act as fitness trackers and recognize gestures, like nodding your head to accept a call.

Doppler Labs’ Here promises to bring the benefits of hearing aids to people with normal hearing, by providing a “live listening” experience for Coachella festival attendees. Even Twitter is getting in on the act. And there are many more examples.

With so many smart earbuds already on the market, why should Apple enter the sector now? To coin a phrase Steve Jobs once borrowed from Indiana Jones, I believe most hearable makers are “digging in the wrong place.”

Today’s hearing aids are overpriced and unimpressive

I lost most of my hearing as a result of chemotherapy treatment for cancer back in 2007. It saved my life, but left me relying on hearing aids to engage in a conversation.

I’ve found today’s hearing aids are overpriced and difficult to use. Unlike glasses, which have become a stylish fashion accessory, hearing aids remain clunky and uncool. No wonder only one in five people who could benefit from hearing aids actually wear them. Many people choose to struggle with poor hearing rather than accept the social stigma associated with the devices.

Every time I buy a new pair, I hope it will be “the one” that solves my hearing problems. But even those that claim to be “Made for iPhone” tend to be unreliable for streaming audio and making calls.

If only there were an innovative tech company that specialized in entering new markets with disruptive, revolutionary consumer products that could drag the hearing aid industry into the 21st century …

OK, I admit, these are just regular hearing aids with an Apple logo stuck on them. I’m sure Jonathan Ive and his team would come up with something way better.
OK, I admit, these are just regular hearing aids with an Apple logo stuck on them. I’m sure Jony Ive and his team would come up with something better.
Photo: Graham Bower/Cult of Mac

Why Apple needs to make hearing aids

The market for hearing aids is not as niche as it might appear: 15 percent of American adults report having trouble hearing. And this problem is set to increase as our population gets older, because aging is a major cause of hearing loss. Forecasts suggest the hearing aid market will be worth more than $8 billion by 2020.

In reality, Apple’s new EarPods will probably not double as hearing aids. But imagine if they did.

Apple’s entry into this sector could disrupt the hearing aid industry and be a godsend for deaf people like me. And the latest technological advances could benefit everyone. The market for Apple hearables is clearly not limited to people with hearing loss. There are three features I believe Apple is uniquely placed to deliver that could make Cupertino’s Smart EarPods a must-have accessory for everyone.

Holographic audio

Stereo has been with us since the 1930s. In headphones, it creates an immersive audio experience, but it is far from natural. For example, if you are listening to music with drums on your left and vocals on your right, when you turn to face in the opposite direction, the drums remain on your left and vocals on your right. In reality, they would have switched to the opposite sides. It is as if the band is actually attached to your head.

Imagine you are standing in the middle of the band. As you turn your head, the unique audio mix of the different instruments around you changes in each ear as you turn. But regular stereo does not come close to matching this experience.

Reproducing this effect requires a recording taken from many different directional microphones. This is known as “holographic audio.” To listen to this kind of recording using headphones, you would need motion sensors attached to your head to pick up your movements and adjust the audio mix accordingly. Holographic sound promises to be the next major leap forward in audio technology.

iPhones already feature CoreMotion, a framework that provides applications with data from a magnetic compass, accelerometer and gyroscope. If Apple were to build CoreMotion into its Smart EarPods, it could quite literally add a new dimension to music.

Augmented-reality Siri

Google Glass was once hyped as the future of wearables, but consumers did not embrace the gadget because of its clunky looks and unintuitive interface. Glass was ahead of its time. But the idea of having a wearable virtual assistant that provides context-aware information while you are on the move is still a good one.

Augmented-reality vision may be a long way off, but the technology for augmented-reality audio exists today. Imagine you are walking down the street when you hear Siri call out on your left, “Hey — that shop you are looking for is over here.” When you turn your head to the left, Siri adds, “Now you’re looking straight at it.”

Smart EarPods equipped with CoreMotion could do this easily, mapping Siri’s voice onto specific locations in the environment around you.

This technique could also be used to mix audio from your iPhone with ambient sound around you. For example, when taking a call while walking, the caller’s voice could be positioned to your right, as if you were walking next to them. If you were seated, the caller could be positioned in front of you, as if you were seated opposite each other.

This would have a significant safety benefit. Regular headphones block your ears, so you can’t hear what is going on around you, whether it’s the hoot of a car horn or the screeching brakes of a bike. By mixing external and internal audio sources in this way, you would be able to hear everything that matters while you are on the move.

In combination with noise-cancellation technology, augmented-reality audio could allow you to let in external sound when you want it, and block it when you don’t.

Superhuman hearing

While only 15 percent of Americans suffer from hearing problems, everyone could benefit from superhuman hearing sometimes. Seinfeld famously ended up wearing a puffy shirt on a TV appearance, thanks to his inability to hear a “low talker.”

Hearing aid technology has come a long way. These days they can eliminate background noises and pick out the voice of a person directly in front of you. Siemens even claims its latest models offer “better than human” hearing. In other words, everyone could benefit from them. Superhuman hearing can help you have a conversation in a noisy environment like a nightclub, without the need for any shouting.

Breaking the mold in hearing aid sales

Hearing aids today can cost as much as $5,000. One of the reasons they are so expensive is because the sales channel is complicated. You buy hearing aids from audiologists, who test your hearing and tune your hearing aids to your specific prescription based on your “pure tone audiogram.”

While there are doubtless many regulatory issues surrounding this, I wonder if Apple could solve the problem with a self-testing app for minor hearing impairments — using an approach like the tests in ResearchKit, Apple’s open-source platform for clinical trials. A similar pragmatic approach allows those with minor vision impairments to buy reading glasses over the counter without a prescription.

I’m hoping Apple will listen

Hearing aids are pretty much the only gadgets I use every day that are not made by Apple. I guess that is why I get so frustrated by them. They are just not up to Apple’s high standards. Even when I’m wearing them, I still have trouble hearing people.

I realize Apple may have other priorities, like building electric, self-driving cars. But for anyone who could benefit from better, more affordable hearing aids, I hope Apple is listening.

Thanks to Peter O’Shaughnessy from pebble {code} for his input into this article.