AirPods Max with bone conduction could make phone calls more private

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Future AirPods Max or other personal audio accessories could increase the confidentiality of sounds by using bone conduction to transmit calls or private audio to the user without being heard by others.

Like other forms of communication, audio can sometimes require a degree of privacy. While music can be played freely on a speaker with few privacy concerns, a phone call with a loved one may not need to be broadcast into a room in this way and may even require the recipient to move away from other people.

While holding an iPhone to your ear may be more private than using a speaker, and that earbuds can be even more private, there is still the problem of spillover audio. Even if you are as careful as possible about being the only person hearing a phone or earbuds, chances are someone else in the same room can still hear what you are hearing.

In a patent issued Tuesday by the US Patent and Trademark Office to Apple entitled “Bone Conduction Transducers for Privacy,” Apple believes that using bone conduction technology could provide far more privacy than even earbuds.

Bone conduction is a system in which transducers or actuators touch the user’s skin, typically in close proximity to the ear but not the ear canal itself. By transmitting vibrations into the skull, the eardrum can be affected in the same way as sound but without the need to displace air, as one would expect from a loudspeaker.

As a result, only the wearer of the earphone or bone conduction device hears the transmitted audio, not someone else.

According to the patent application, a pair of headphones or earphones could have multiple channels, one set being referred to as a “private” channel. The private channel is only routed to the bone conduction transducer, while others are routed to the speakers as usual.

A computer system can play audio through the headphones but needs to determine whether the communication might be private or not. If it’s private, it is routed to the bone conduction transducer while non-private audio is routed through the speakers.

The system can make the decision based on a flag or indicator contained in the content it intends to play for the user. For example, a text or audio message could have a privacy flag, or certain callers could be flagged as private in the device’s contacts for the same purpose.

The system can also attempt to automatically determine whether an untagged communication is private based on an analysis. For example, the use of certain words or phrases used in a private conversation could cause the system to use bone conduction.

An example flowchart for determining whether to play content through a speaker or using bone conduction.

An example flowchart for determining whether to play content through a speaker or using bone conduction.

In addition to flags or audio processing, this analysis can be visual. Cameras and video are mentioned on the file, including the suggestion that object detection could be used by elements of a setting to determine whether an area is private enough to hear a boneless call.

This could include the camera detecting other people, or even signs on walls indicating that video and audio are being recorded, e.g. B. for security cameras.

The patent lists its inventors as Robert D. Silfvast, Neal D. Evans, Nikolas T. Vitt, and Jonathan D. Sheaffer. It was originally submitted on 06/02/2020.

Apple files numerous patent applications each week, but while the presence of a patent or application indicates areas of interest for its research and development teams, there is no guarantee that the idea will show up in any future product or service.

Of course, Apple has looked at bone conduction in previous filings. In 2016, a system proposed the use of accelerometers to detect vocal cord vibrations on the user’s skull to improve audio reception for speech recognition.

In June 2020, a patent outlined how earphones can use both bone conduction and normal air conduction to create a hybrid listening experience. While bone conduction would handle low and mid-range notes, air conduction would handle higher pitches.


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