Apple isn’t going to let Google run away with producing the only smart headphones on the market.
A few pieces of information have surfaced in recent months that suggest the AirPods-maker is gradually adding – or, at least, looking at – enhanced functionality for its wildly popular earbuds.
The most recent is a patent – spotted by Patently Apple – that details a future pair of AirPods that have new health-focused features. The patent describes a feature that uses the in-built accelerometers and gyroscopes (currently in the AirPods Pro) to get orientation information and measure user movements.
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Specifically mentioning proper form when working out, the patent explains that the new AirPods may be part of a system that coaches users and gives feedback based on “performance of a head movement routine or other exercise routine.” The idea being the AirPods will be able to tell if you’re doing an exercise incorrectly.
Referencing form prior, during and after a work-out, the patent goes on to say that “these stretch positions, which may sometimes be referred to as user head poses, user head tilts, neck stretches, poses, etc., may be used to help stretch and relax the muscles in a user’s upper body.”
This, clearly, sounds like a reference to Yoga and if it turns out to be true it would be a good use of the AirPods’ gyroscopes. It appears the idea is to offer performance related coaching that’s based on your form and movement, rather than the one-way coaching you get from watching an instructional video.
If accurate (granted patents don’t always become reality), this could be an unintentionally timely product. Lockdown means more people are haphazardly learning to work-out from home. Any sort of feedback – or correction on proper form -would be welcome to the many struggling through new exercises they’re trying out in their living room whilst watching YouTube.
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This isn’t the only hint we’ve had that Apple is headed in a new direction with the AirPods. Back in May DigiTimes reported that Apple is planning to include ambient light sensors in its next earbuds. The report speculated that the new biometric tech could be used to measure health data by monitoring step counts, heart rate and keeping an eye on other health conditions.
The light sensor technology could be conceptually similar to how the Apple Watch measures heart rate, which houses an optical heart sensor and employs a technique called photoplethysmography to gather information. As Apple explains, “blood is red because it reflects red light and absorbs green light. Apple Watch uses green LED lights paired with light‑sensitive photodiodes to detect the amount of blood flowing through your wrist at any given moment.”
How, exactly, all of this will be crammed into future AirPods without making them too bulky is a question still to be answered. But however Apple approaches design, it’s clear these additions suggest the AirPods are headed in a new direction away from just being audio conduits.
The competition from rivals to smarten up their earbuds is rapidly heating up, too. Google has committed to regular feature drops (feature-based updates that happen a few times a year) for its Pixel Buds, which will likely imbue with them more smart functionality that utilises its AI Assistant technology. OnePlus has hinted that its new buds will have extra smart functionality such has a low latency mode when used for gaming, whilst Microsoft’s Surface Earbuds can live narrative PowerPoint slides.
For the humble earbud, it’s not enough to play music any more, they are becoming – and perhaps have to become – slightly less intelligent extensions of your smartphone.
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