A New Solution to Volume on AirPods
Only a software update and a swipe away
Ever since their release, AirPods have been criticized for their lack of volume controls. Currently, the only way to change volume on the AirPods is by activating Siri and asking to change the volume. There are shortcomings to this approach, one being that you have to speak to change the volume. Siri also relies on an internet connection, so when you’re without a connection you are out of luck. With Siri not always working, depending on your situation, you might as well pull out your phone to change the volume. For users of EarPods, the inline play/pause and volume controls became a habit. As a person who used EarPods daily, and made the switch to AirPods, for the first day or so I felt the need to click a nonexistent button dangling from my right AirPod. I love my AirPods and will defend them in conversation but this is a place that needs improvement and I think I have found a way.
When thinking about how the AirPods could be controlled you can see why Apple didn’t implement a touch sensor on the back of the AirPods. Accidental taps on the AirPods would be a big problem. The current way of activating Siri or play pause controls relies on two slightly forceful taps that are recognized by the accelerometer. A touch sensor would be a bad experience as you might pause music or change the volume just by adjusting the AirPods in your ears.
The current design of AirPods have what Apple calls Dual beam-forming microphones. One microphone is on the outside of the casing, below the acoustic port, and one at the bottom of the stem. For my idea to work both the bottom microphone and the microphone below the acoustic port will be needed.
Theoretically, my idea could be done with a software update. How my approach works is by using the acoustic port on the back of AirPods and the microphone below it. Unlike on the previous EarPods, the acoustic port is much larger, measuring about 4mm by 1.7mm. If you listen carefully you can hear two distinct sounds when swiping up and down on the port. The sounds would be picked up by the microphone directly below the port and would register as the input. The microphone at the base of the stem would be used as well to create a more accurate reading. To trigger a volume change should be similar to how the current play/pause controls work, which is a double tap. In the case of switching volume, it could be two swipes in the same direction to activate the volume change. By default swiping twice would change the volume by two points. After the initial change has happened the user can keep swiping to manually change the volume to their liking, with one swipe equalling to one volume point.
My idea could be improved by using even more of the sensors in the AirPods. Currently, there are 2 microphones, an accelerometer and a variety of other sensors. Apple could utilize accelerometer data to detect what movements happen when a user swipes the port, allowing for an even more accurate system. Since there are two different AirPods, microphones not used by the volume controls could be used to filter out ambient noise to make sure the AirPods are getting the right inputs.
If you want to look deeper into how it could work you can test it with your own AirPods. Open voice memos on your iPhone with only one AirPod in your ear and the other in the case. Cover the microphone at the bottom of the stem. Start recording and swipe up and down on the acoustic port and you will see the visualization of the sound. The up and down swipes seem pretty similar at that scale but they are different. Try again but this time don’t cover the microphone at the bottom. This microphone picks up a much fainter but more distinct two sounds. The patterns of each swipe could be worked out using the microphone closer to the port but a mixture of the two microphones is best.
If the AirPods only used the data from microphones the possibility that someone could dupe the AirPods into changing the volume by playing the sounds from a speaker would be possible. A way around that is to ignore any swipe sounds if it’s picked up by both AirPods.
I really want a way to change volume without the use of Siri and I think this is possibly the best way while using the current hardware. The one thing that makes me doubt that my idea would work well is that Apple didn’t implement it. AirPods have been in the works for years and a trail of patents lead us to believe that they were almost complete years ago. Apple would have tested out many different input methods and this surely was one, which leads me to think that it already has been deemed unreliable. To me, I would rather have an input method that works 80% of the time than none at all. Hell, the current option for changing volume doesn’t work perfectly either and you can replace it!