Future Apple headphones could detect how they are worn with a microphone array

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Apple is continuing to come up with ways to solve the problem of wearing headphones the wrong way around, by coming up with a detection method to determine how the audio accessory is being worn and switching channels, just by listening to the user's voice.

Beats by Dre's 10th Anniversary
Beats by Dre's 10th Anniversary "Decade Collection" headphones


The patent application published by the United States Patent and Trademark Office on Thursday called "System and method for automatic right-left ear detection for headphones" is relatively self-descriptive in its title. Using the method, the headphones work out whether the user has placed the headset on in one of the two ways it could be worn, to always allow the left-channel audio to play through the left-hand earcup and the right-channel audio to the right-hand version.

The detection of which ear would allow for the production headphones that don't appear to have any left or right side indications, be it by physical design or by labelling. Typically most headphones and earphones offer some indication of which side the earpiece is meant for, such as by the letter L or R, though the inclusion of earhooks or the accessory's physicality could force users into using the right orientation.

In Apple's patent application, the system uses a collection of five microphones spaced around each earcup in strategic positions, including one on the front and back sides, one below, one at the top and offset to the "left" of the earcup when viewed externally, and one inside the earcup pointing towards the user's ear.

By listening to the voice of the user, and monitoring the volume of the voice by each microphone, the headphones can determine which edge is closest to the user's mouth, and therefore which orientation the headphones reside. The offsetting of the top-side microphones also allows for just those two microphones to be used, with the logic the microphone of the two that has the louder volume is closer to the mouth.

Microphone placement for each earcup to determine orientation in Apple's patent application
Microphone placement for each earcup to determine orientation in Apple's patent application


The system also suggests that using three or more microphones from just one earcup could be used to perform the task, rather than relying on microphones from both sides, as enough information would be pulled from volume levels on either side of one earcup to determine orientation.

In all cases, when the orientation is worked out, the relevant audio signal is fed to the appropriate earcups.

The plurality of microphones could also help to eliminate noise when the headset is used for calls or vocal commands. The extra data points from multiple microphones could be employed for beamforming to more accurately capture the voice, as well as for noise reduction.

This is not the only method Apple has come up with to solve the problem of mis-applied headphones. Another patent application revealed in October suggested the use of capacitive proximity sensor electrodes within the earcup, which could sense the presence of the ear and its shape to work out if it is the left or right ear, for similar purposes.

That proposal could also be used in a pillow, for example, to work out which way the user faces while sleeping.

Apple has also invested time and effort into other headphone-related items, including a patent for "spatial headphone transparency" that could adjust the audio feed to make it sound like the user is hearing the audio from their surroundings and not from headphones. A "dual-mode" headphone that could double up as a speaker has also been suggested, along with headphones with sensors that could be used for health monitoring.

The iPhone producer has been rumored to be coming up with high-end over-the-ear headphones under its own name, rather than under the Beats brand. Rumors alleged a shipment of the audio headwear before the end of 2018, but the chances of that occurring are, at this stage, quite slim.

Comments

  • Reply 1 of 10
    macguimacgui Posts: 935member
    SERIOUSLY? Do you get an alert: You're wearing them wrong!
    Yeah, I'd want a lot more benefit than something that could be done with a tasteful, embossed R and L.
  • Reply 2 of 10
    mac_128mac_128 Posts: 3,263member
    macgui said:
    SERIOUSLY? Do you get an alert: You're wearing them wrong!
    Yeah, I'd want a lot more benefit than something that could be done with a tasteful, embossed R and L.
    I would assume that the headphones automatically route the L/R signal to the appropriate sides based on how the user put them on.

    I'd love this feature actually. Since most people tend to put the headphones on from the front, I'd think some kind of accelerometer could be used to detect which way the motion is going and make the determination that way too. 
    Apple Exposed
  • Reply 3 of 10
    dewmedewme Posts: 1,763member
    macgui said:
    SERIOUSLY? Do you get an alert: You're wearing them wrong!
    Yeah, I'd want a lot more benefit than something that could be done with a tasteful, embossed R and L.
    Yeah, sure, but what those folks who put their headphones on 90 degrees out of alignment? They won't see the tasteful, embossed R or L labels. Heck, they may not see anything at all depending on how close together their eyes happen to be. At least with Apple's fancy microphone array the 90-degree offset wearer's voice will be detected as being muffled and an audible alert sounded on the headset, which they may be able to hear through their nose, if they aren't already wearing earbuds in their nostrils.
    tycho_macuser
  • Reply 4 of 10
    Attention, this is Siri! We have detected that your headphones are worn. Please replace immediately.
  • Reply 5 of 10
    mac_128mac_128 Posts: 3,263member
    Does anybody even read these articles before they post?

    In all cases, when the orientation is worked out, the relevant audio signal is fed to the appropriate earcups. 
    Three posts suggesting an alert to warn or incorrect orientation -- when the article clearly states the more elegant solution of the signal being rerouted regardless of how the user puts them on.
    entropysGeorgeBMacApple Exposedtht
  • Reply 6 of 10
    entropysentropys Posts: 1,346member
    mac_128 said:
    Does anybody even read these articles before they post?

    In all cases, when the orientation is worked out, the relevant audio signal is fed to the appropriate earcups. 
    Three posts suggesting an alert to warn or incorrect orientation -- when the article clearly states the more elegant solution of the signal being rerouted regardless of how the user puts them on.
    mac_128 said:
    Does anybody even read these articles before they post?

    In all cases, when the orientation is worked out, the relevant audio signal is fed to the appropriate earcups. 
    Three posts suggesting an alert to warn or incorrect orientation -- when the article clearly states the more elegant solution of the signal being rerouted regardless of how the user puts them on.
    Yes you have to laugh. This idea is pretty good actually, so good you almost have to wonder why it hasn’t happened before once companies started putting microphones in headsets.
    On the other hand it might result in a fair bit of additional cost. But hey, I am pretty sure the margins on headphones are pretty good as it is.
  • Reply 7 of 10
    Rayz2016Rayz2016 Posts: 4,352member
    macgui said:
    SERIOUSLY? Do you get an alert: You're wearing them wrong!
    Yeah, I'd want a lot more benefit than something that could be done with a tasteful, embossed R and L.

    Then you should have read the article.

    No, you don't get an alert.

    The headphones won't have a left/right channel. You can put them on either way and it won't matter, something that would probably be even more convenient for the blind than embossed symbols.

    The same setup can also aid with ambient noise reduction and beam-forming the user's voice for phone calls and Siri commands, something that can't be done with an embossed R and L.
    Apple Exposed
  • Reply 8 of 10
    As an aside, I just bought my grandson a pair of Bose noise cancelling headphones from the Apple store this week.   They are I N C R E D I B L E ! 

    They were not something I would have chosen -- I tried to talk him into the AirPods instead.  But, I didn't realize how the sound deadening can help bring the music out more purely...   He loves them!

    I only fear that, because of the so very effective sound deadening, they make him effectively deaf.   All he can hear is the music.   So we cautioned him to only wear them inside and away from traffic.
    Apple Exposed
  • Reply 9 of 10
    Apple ExposedApple Exposed Posts: 15unconfirmed, member
    macgui said:
    SERIOUSLY? Do you get an alert: You're wearing them wrong!
    Yeah, I'd want a lot more benefit than something that could be done with a tasteful, embossed R and L.


    I have zero mercy for posts like these. You just don't get it do you?

    Rayz2016 said:
    macgui said:
    SERIOUSLY? Do you get an alert: You're wearing them wrong!
    Yeah, I'd want a lot more benefit than something that could be done with a tasteful, embossed R and L.

    Then you should have read the article.

    No, you don't get an alert.

    The headphones won't have a left/right channel. You can put them on either way and it won't matter, something that would probably be even more convenient for the blind than embossed symbols.

    The same setup can also aid with ambient noise reduction and beam-forming the user's voice for phone calls and Siri commands, something that can't be done with an embossed R and L.

    I didn't even read the article and I understand the reasoning behind this innovation. It's amazing and I often see people put earphones one the wrong way and it ruins music, flipping the orientation artists intended it to be heard. This tech would also remove the necessity for the embossed R and L, making the product more practical and prettier.

    BTW It's so unlike Apple to have your music interrupted by a voice telling you you're wearing earphones wrong. SMH. How did they even think of that disaster of an implementation? Microsoft fans maybe?

    edited November 10
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  • Reply 10 of 10
    macguimacgui Posts: 935member
    Apple Exposed said:
    I have zero mercy for posts like these. You just don't get it do you?

    And I have zero respect or concern for condescending idiots who just don't get it. Obviously I erred in giving too much credit and not including a /s tag. You have no mercy... What utter bullshit. 

    This 'innovation' on Apple's part is truly a solution to a first world problem– 'misapplied headphones'– that's easily solvable at zero additional expense. Anybody with a room temperature IQ can figure out how to put headphones on correctly after one 'lesson'.

    It's so easy a blind person could do it, and many do. I'm a fan of convenience but this takes take it to the point of absurdity. It sounds like one of the many Apple designs that will never be a shipping product, a proof of concept project, and not an actual product.

    I'd prefer the effort go into crafting superior sound reproduction. Anybody who needs help getting cans on right way round probably wouldn't notice a reversed soundstage in the first place.

    That the mic array might reduce ambient noise is something worthwhile. Were this ever to come to fruition, I shudder to think what Apple will think it's worth. 

    Seriously, aside form some potential noise reduction, all the electronics for this 'rightwayround innovation' could be replaced by two small bumps or indentations in the front and back of one earcup or other subtle relief. Looking or feeling would instantly tell the user whether to put it on or suffer the pain of embarrassment and shame of having to rotate them. Oh the humanity. Maybe for some correcting 'misapplied headphones' would be an arduous task.

    It is an interesting idea. Something an engineer might sketch out on an iPad during lunch. But become a product? SYH and hold your breath while you're at it.

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