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Apple may be making noise-canceling headphones safer to use on the streets

A newly published patent application from Apple describes how the company is going to address a fundamental problem with over-the-ear and on-ear headphones: They can be so effective at blocking outside sounds, they become a potential hazard when wearing them outside. The solution, according to the patent, is to engineer headphones with a series of external and internal microphones that can dynamically route outside sounds to the listener, effectively making the headphones acoustically invisible to the wearer.

In an era where more and more headphones are being marketed as having superior noise cancellation, Apple’s invention would set a new level of expectation among users. Why should your headphones only be good at keeping sounds out, if they can intelligently decide to also let sounds in, when you need them to? The patent describes several key benefits of its “spatial headphone transparency” system:

  • With both external and internal mics, the headphones would know exactly how much sound to let in, because they could measure the difference between outside sounds, and those that make it through to your ears.
  • With multiple externals mics, outside sounds could be reproduced faithfully so that their directionality was preserved. You wouldn’t just hear the sound of a car, you’d know where the sound was coming from — a critical element to being able to react to your surroundings.
  • During a phone call, the headphones could provide you with the ability to hear your own voice in the same way that you can when not wearing headphones.
  • Much more effective Active Noise Cancelation (ANC): For times when you do want to block the outside sounds, the internal mics could measure how effective the noise cancellation algorithm was at canceling sounds, giving the system real-time performance feedback.
  • Similarly, when listening to an audio source, the headphones could provide a customizable, user-controlled mix of noise cancellation.

We’d wager that, aside from the many benefits a system like this would offer music lovers, the patent is largely aimed at reducing the risk associated with wearing headphones. Beats, the headphone company started by Dr. Dre and later acquired by Apple for $3 billion, launched in 2007. It more or less started the large, over-the-ear headphone trend that persists to this day. With that trend came a noticeable uptick in accidents associated with headphone use. From 2004 to 2010 — a period that straddles the Beats launch — headphone-related accidents went up by nearly 300 percent, according to a study done by the University of Maryland School of Medicine in 2012. Every year since the study was performed, more people have become victims of their own lack of situational awareness because of their headphones. Headphones designed to intelligently let sounds in, instead of always keeping them out, could significantly reduce the risks.

Recently, rumors that Apple will be launching its own brand of over-the-ear headphones have begun to heat up, and this patent might just be a preview of how the company will use sophisticated new technology to market them. AirPhones, perhaps?

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Simon Cohen
Contributing Editor, A/V
Simon Cohen covers a variety of consumer technologies, but has a special interest in audio and video products, like…
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