Five ways Apple could push headphone technology forward

Beats headphones are sold along side iPods in an Apple store on May 9, 2014 in New York City. Apple is rumored to be consideringing buying the headphone company for $3.2 billion.  (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

In early May, the tech world was buzzing about a rumor posted on Secret that Apple might make earpods with biometric sensors for heart rate and blood pressure. The only problem was that the Secret post was a hoax written by someone with no knowledge of Apple’s plans. I don’t have any particular inside knowledge about the R&D labs in Cupertino either, but perhaps the rumor wasn’t as wild as it first seemed: Apple, even if it isn’t planning to release some kind of advanced wearable headphones, has almost certainly toyed with the idea.

Apple is interested in health technology and it seems as if Apple will launch an wearable wrist computer is coming later this year. Many aspects of that device — such as its reported reliance on biometric sensors — could also be included in headphones, as well.

The elephant in the room is Apple’s $3 billion acquisition of Beats Electronics, the market leader in high-end headphones. Beats doesn’t seem to fit exactly in with Apple’s product philosophy, but it’s hard to see Apple killing a wildly profitable line of products with billion-dollar annual revenue just because it wanted the associated streaming music service. And the firm that designed Beats, Ammunition, has confirmed that it is no longer working with the colorful headphones after the Apple sale, which would imply that Apple has brought R&D for headphones in-house. It does look as if there will eventually — at some point — be a new Beats design, this time headed up by Apple. So what’s going to be included?

Apple Secret

Replacing the headphone jack

To do anything interesting with sensors in headphones, Apple would first need to decide how to transfer data from the headphones to a device. Bluetooth is one option, but equally interesting is Apple’s proprietary Lightning cable. According to 9to5Mac, Apple has introduced a specification in its Made-For-iOS (MFi) program that allows headphones to be connected through a Lightning cord, instead of the 3.5mm headphone jack.

Why would they do this? There are a few immediate advantages that have nothing to do with ear sensors: first, the headphones could draw power from an Apple device or — if the headphones had a built-in battery — could even power the iPhone they’re plugged into.

Audiophiles will point out that the 3.5mm jack outputs analog audio, and the Lightning port is capable of passing digital audio, which could be 48kHz and lossless and converted in a higher-quality digital audio converter included with the headphones. But few people have stereos sophisticated enough to hear the difference, and besides,Beats don’t offer what many consider to be the best sound quality, and people bought them anyway.

Eventually, ditching the 3.5mm jack in favor of a single port could also allow Apple more design flexibility — thinner devices, bigger batteries, increased water resistance.

But what the Lightning jack opens up most of all is a way for a sensors and microphones embedded in headphones to talk back to an Apple device. This could mean using Apple’s greater device processing power to run noise cancelling software, or it could send back biometric data to Healthkit app with data. Sure, that could be done through Bluetooth, but that would also mean the headphones would need a battery. With sensors that don’t need a ton of power, “smart earbuds” could be powered through the device.

It’s important to note that the MFi program is for third-party accessory makers, and it doesn’t necessarily signal a major Apple push. For instance, the MFi specifications also allow for iOS-compatible controllers, but Apple hasn’t given those accessories much love or special attention: no Apple apps work with them, and Apple doesn’t even publish a list of apps compatible with those controllers.

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Apple’s been working on these ideas… and it has the patents to prove it

Before a wearable sensor-laden wristwatch was a glimmer in CEO Tim Cook’s eye, Apple was working on a health monitoring system. Of course, patents never guarantee products, but they’re a good sign that certain concepts have been pondered. In 2008, Apple applied for a patent called “Sports Monitoring System for Headphones, Earbuds and Headsets.” The idea, at the time, pertained to Nike + iPod, which over the years has evolved into a component of HealthKit and an app built into iOS. The patent was eventually granted a few months ago. From the summary:

The monitoring system can, for example, be used to monitor user activity, such as during exercise or sporting activities. The positioning of the monitoring system can also facilitate sensing of other user characteristics (e.g., biometric data), such as temperature, perspiration and heart rate.

Patent 8,655,004 also includes a general description of the way gestures could be incorporated into a headset, which is a theme that comes up again and again in Apple’s later patent applications.

One such application, filed in November 2012 but not granted, described how Apple would incorporate presence sensors into both earbuds and over-ear cans (like the ones Beats is famous for). One graphic illustrates that if the headphones were to be taken off or fall off, the phone would be able to stop the music. The sensors described by Apple are akin to the proximity sensors included in phones that disable the touch screen when it is near to a face, like when the user picks up a call.

And last Thursday, the US Patent & Trademark office published yet another headphone patent from Apple relating to over-ear cans.

An aside: there are two kinds of headphones. One is called closed-back, which is what Beats makes: the earcups not only surround the user’s ear, but also have a sealed ear cup. Open-back sound better than closed-back, but are significantly less well-suited for public transit or the office because their open backs leak ound into and from the environment. Closed cans generally have better passive noise cancellation both for the listener and people around him, but open cans avoid resonance that can really degrade sound. Patent application 20140169579, which was also filed toward the end of 2014, describes a system that combines the best aspects of closed-back and open-ear headphones through a technology called active noise cancellation.

Currently, the market leader in canceling headphones is Bose, whose headphone require a battery and a dongle on their cords to cancel environmental noise. Apple’s noise-canceling cans, connected through a Lightning cord, would not need the battery or dongle.

Smart people think the ear is a good place for wearable computing

Of course, the Secret rumor was posted before the public had a hint of the Beats deal  and as Rachel Feltman at QZ writes, companies other than Apple have done a lot of work on wearable ear computerse. The ear doesn’t move around the way the wrist does, so taking readings of biological metrics like heart rate and blood pressure is easier.

Some heart-rate monitors on the market today, like the irviverON, take readings through the ears and pair them a phone through Bluetooth. Intel announced a set of sensor-packed earbuds earlier this year, but they’re are unlikely to make it to market.

Plans or fantasy? Beats me

I don’t think Apple’s iconic white earbuds are going anywhere. Apple continues to refine them, many consider them perfectly fine headphones, and I expect them to be included with iPhones for the foreseeable future. Apple’s $80 in-ear headphones, sold separately, face a much more uncertain future. I could see Apple updating its EarPods to work with a Lightning connector, but I do not think it is likely that they will have noise cancelling, proximity sensors for gesture control, nor sensors to record biometric data.

Apple is reevaluating all the headphones it currently makes and sells. For instance, Beats is one of the best-selling headphones inside Apple stores. Could Apple drum up support for its back-to-school promotion by including free Beats headphones? Is that even in Apple’s best interest? I don’t think we’ll see Beats-branded audio products included with an Apple device in the near future.

I suspect if there were to be an ear-mounted device that took biometric data, it would be sold separately, and would be an alternative to the wearable device that is most likely coming out this fall. But what I find much more likely is that Apple releases a pair of over-ear, noise-cancelling headphones, possibly branded Beats. Beats does make a pair of noise-cancelling headphones but they require batteries. Active noise-cancelling headphones which draw power from a phone would be a first, and as Tim Cook likes to say, is the kind of feature that “only Apple” can pull off, because of its tight integration of devices and services, starting in this case with the Lightning cable.

Regardless, when Apple bought Beats, they became one of the largest high-end headphone makers in the world. Even before the Beats deal, Apple produced 10s of millions of their white earbuds. Apple has an opportunity to do something wild with headphone technology, and eventually, it won’t be a secret.

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