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Apple to explore Ear-Detection in the use of Over-Ear Headphones

Apple is examining ways to improve the listening experience while using earphones.

A patented application launched by the United States Patent and Trademark Office on Thursday, titled “Electronic Devices with Configurable Capacitive Proximity Sensors,” briefs how capacitive proximity sensors can be used to sense the availability of a user’s ear. 

The base of the application grows from how music and other stereo audio is tunneled into specific left and right channels.

Headphones and earphones usually include labels to show which side is intended for the user’s left or right ear, in order for the device to be worn correctly. 

If worn wrong, the stereo effect will be reversed from normal, which could cause errors with the user’s listening.

Easiest that, Apple provides the example of watching a movie while wearing headphones, with the appearance of audio playing into the user’s left ear, but is indicated on screen to be on the right-hand side. 

Automatically adjusting the audio based on the user’s ear shape in over-ear headphones.

One remedy involves the use of sensors that take a step ahead with the speakers in over-ear headphones, potentially including capacitive proximity sensor electrodes arranged in a ring.

Included control circuitry could use the sensors to measure the ear pattern when the headphones are worn on the head, allowing it to determine if the left or right ear is present, then to allow the left or right channel audio to be played back through the speaker. 

On the face of it, such a system would effectively allow for over-ear headphones that would not require the left or right-side markings, but the patent application could be used in other ways.

Since the sensor knows the pattern of the ear, it is feasible that the data could be used to enhance the audio for the listener, customizing the sound based on the ear shape and size. 

The dynamic combination of electrodes to create a big sensing area can also reduce down to use lesser electrodes, which Apple suggests can better the spatial resolution for ear detection. 

Automatically switching channels between the left and right earcups if the headphones are worn the wrong way around. 

The system isn’t only limited to headphones, as the capacitive arrangement could be used in other ways, such as in a pillow that uses the ear shape to determine which side a person is sleeping.

It could also be put up in areas where other types of sensor, such as optical or inductive proximity sensors, may trade off sensitivity or detection range in favor of the resolution. 

This is way away from the only headphone or audio-related patent Apple has applied for over the years. In July, it received a patent for “Spatial headphone transparency” that could level the sound source from an audio source. To make the user hear feel it as if they aren’t wearing headphones at all. 

In February 2017, another patent was granted for a “dual-mode” headphone that could double up as a stereo loudspeaker.

November 2016 patent extended a decade-old innovation covering wearable sports and health monitoring devices, with the filing including language suggesting it could be used with the company’s AirPods wireless headphones. 

Reports from March stated Apple was working on its own high-end over-the-ear headphones under its own name, instead of inserting it as part of the Beats brand.

It was stated Apple was willing to ship the peripherals before the end of 2018, but there has been barely any talk of the headphones since. 

Apple also has insight into adaptive audio processing, with the HomePod able enough of recognizing its surroundings and optimizing its output to fill the room with sound, regardless of nearby obstacles or furniture.

Considering the detection and adaptation at work, it would be a small jump rather than a giant leap to apply the same principles to the worn audio device.

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Ashutosh Kumar

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