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Apple’s new AirPods spatial audio patent would make me way more likely to use it

Apple’s AirPods spatial audio feature is a sonic characteristic unique to the company’s top rate headphones that brings surround sound to the diminutive earbuds. By applying directional audio filters and subtly adjusting the frequencies that each earbud receives, the feature makes it seem like you’re in the middle of a theater-like listening experience with just two earbuds on your head.

However, there are times when you’re not at a movie theatre and you don’t want to be surrounded by sound. That’s the point of a patent filed by Apple that would make your AirPods automatically adjust their audio to your environment. According to a new patent filing at the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), Apple’s future AirPods could use their sensors, microphones and digital signal processor to recognize your acoustic surroundings. The headset could then dynamically adjust various parameters to simulate your acoustic environment and deliver a more natural, immersive listening experience.

This is in line with a push for automation of certain features that we’ve seen in recent updates to iOS, tvOS and watchOS that include active noise cancellation and transparency modes. It also lines up with the recently announced group facetime support for the AirPods Pro 2 that uses a feature called dynamic head tracking to make it feel as though your FaceTime callers are right in the room with you.

Taking it a step further, the new patent details a system that would take your posture into account to further customize the audio you’re hearing. The headset would use motion sensors to detect when you’re seated and engaged in music or video playback, which would allow the audio to be automatically disabled from its directional head tracking mode.

It also describes a feature that would detect when you’re walking and pause or mute the audio coming through the left earbud as you move along, since most people tend to walk with their left ear closer to the road. The patent lists six inventors including Avi Bar-Zeev and Rahul Nair, both of whom have previously worked on previous patents related to a user’s gaze tracking in AR.

Of course, all of this technology is only as good as you remember to enable it. Forgetting to turn off the directional head tracking in a noisy room can result in a disorienting, confusing mix of sounds as you move around. And forgetting to manually disable the transparency mode while at a loud party can quickly ruin any chances of having a conversation while wearing your headphones in public. Apple’s push to automate some of its AirPods features based on your environment further shows that the company is dedicated to improving its earbuds beyond the high-end audiophile options it already offers. We’re interested to see how this particular patent pans out, and we hope that it can make its way to the next generation of Apple’s earbuds. Until then, we’re still in love with our second-generation AirPods and their Lightning charging case.