Apple's upcoming high-end over-ear headphones, which we have heard so much about for some time, may employ touch controls that work regardless of how the headphones are oriented on the user's head, rather than enjoying dedicated function buttons. This is what emerges from a last patent filed by the Cupertino multinational.
The rumors of an over-ear headset to be paired with AirPods and AirPods Pro have been around for a while, but outside of the Beats, Apple has not yet released other over-ear models. While rumors indicate a potentially high-quality experience, Apple could use it as an opportunity to introduce new features.
Current over-ear headphones typically rely on the use of dedicated buttons to manage music playback, including searching for music, skipping tracks, volume control, power, call controls, and more yet. It is possible that there are touch sensitive controls on the sides of the auricles, but in many cases they are not too visible or in any case do not release tactile feedback to the user.
While Apple could replace the buttons they could with a series of controls via gestures on a tactile surface, the company would still find itself solving the problem of the orientation with which the headphones are worn. Since gestures generally rely on the orientation of the surface, tilting it differently than when wearing headphones in a conventional way, could lead to gestures interpreted incorrectly.
In a patent published by the United States Patent and Trademark Office in the past few hours, we read of a possible solution to this latter problem, thanks to a "Headphone rotation detection" system. Apple's solution is to determine the presence of the user's ear and then process the orientation of the headphones. In addition to the touch panels provided outside the ear pavilions and the control circuits inside, there may also be a plurality of sensors that are used to measure the ear in different ways.
The interior of the pavilion could be covered by proximity sensors that come into contact with the edges of the ear, so as to detect the shape of the ear, so that the headphones are "informed" of the position with respect to the ear itself and adjust the interpretation of tactile commands. Apple may also employ other sensors, such as optical and structured light sensors, which effectively perform the same functions as proximity sensors.
It must be said, as always, that Apple submits numerous patent applications on a weekly basis, and the documents filed are only indicative of the areas in which Apple's research teams are concentrated: the filing of a patent also does not guarantee at all that this product will be available in the future.
Previous patent applications, for example, concerned the presence of the ear, but for purposes slightly different from the current one. Some documents have included orientation detection, but to determine if the user is wearing headphones correctly or in the wrong way, in which case to change the outputs for the left and right channels to match anyway.
Other related audio patents include some where headphones can turn into a speaker, produce better sound using built-in pressure sensors and also monitor health.
The inventors are Brooke L. Bunney and Jonathan R. Peterson. Bunney an Apple hardware systems integrator, who linked to some patents related to the orientation of the headphones. Peterson was responsible for hardware engineering at Apple until 2017 and now works for Facebook Reality Labs.
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