“AirPods” could be Apple’s major move into Augmented Reality
How Apple could make audio assistance a natural part of our everyday life
I quickly dismissed the rumor that Apple might release completely wireless standalone earbuds called “AirPods.” But when I thought about the possibility of AirPods in the context of Apple’s overall strategy, rather than merely as headphone replacements, they suddenly seemed much more plausible — and interesting.
Apple’s focus on audio technology began at least as early as 2000, when it started developing the iPod. Since then, Apple has reenergized the music business with the iTunes Store, popularized a new genre of audio “infotainment” with Podcasts, pushed the technology stack of the internet to enable seamless video consumption on mobile devices, acquired Beats by Dre, a leading headphone manufacturer and brand in the largest acquisition they’ve ever made, and launched Beats 1, probably the most popular radio station in the world. Apple is deeply invested in delivering value through your ears.
Putting aside the mixed reviews of overall audio quality with Bluetooth headphones, I had two serious concerns with the idea of completely detached earbuds:
- Convenience. Transporting and storing two tiny earbuds everywhere you go seems fiddly and frustrating relative to a wire that’s easy to toss in a bag or grab with one hand.
- Social signaling. The wire on current headphones provides a clear signal to people around you that you’re internally focused or busy. I see this signal used frequently by people on the subway, walking down the street, and even at work. People generally aren’t expected to acknowledge each other if one is wearing headphones. You often want people to know your attention is already focused.
These concerns, though, ignore the growing interest in technology that augments our experiences rather than creating digital-only ones. In July, Tim Cook said:
“We are high on [Augmented Reality] for the long run, we think there’s great things for customers and a great commercial opportunity.”
Products like Google Glass, early iPhone AR apps like AroundMe and Golfscape GPS Rangefinder, Magic Leap, Microsoft Hololens, Apple Watch, and of course, Pokémon Go are all built to enhance and augment the real-world experiences you’re having. But there’s been one fatal flaw in all of these existing AR applications: they’re primarily visual, so while they augment your experience in some aspects, they also markedly distract from it in others.
For example, Siri on Apple Watch only gives visual responses, unlike on iPhone and iPad where Siri also verbalizes a response. Usually when I make a verbal request, it’s because my eyes and hands aren’t free. If I’m riding my bike home from work, I’ll say to my Watch, “Hey Siri, start an open bike workout.” Then, I’ll steal glances at my Watch throughout the ride to check that the workout actually started or see my progress. This is uncomfortable, inconvenient, and almost certainly less safe than getting audio feedback would be.
If Apple developed AirPods to be intentionally ambient and augmentative to your surroundings, then neither the convenience nor the signaling concerns would apply. An ambient device would be worn most of the time, making for fewer transport and storage occasions to worry about. It would be designed to let you continue interacting with people and your surroundings, so there would be no need to signal that you’re internally focused. This would also explain why Apple would launch other forms of wireless headphones and maybe even other wireless earbuds at the same time. There will still be occasions when you want to be actively engaged in your audio experience and signal that to the world, but most of the time, you can wear your AirPods to seamlessly interact with Siri and receive auditory augmentations to everything you’re doing.
There is no more efficient or helpful way to get contextual information while you’re on-the-go than having it spoken directly into your ears with no visual distraction.
Imagine hearing Siri privately let you know it’s time for your next meeting and where it is, or give you verbal directions about which street to turn onto while riding your bike, or read back a text message to you while you’re walking — all without blocking the sound from your surroundings. That’s a true “personal assistant.” You could even talk to Siri anytime and anywhere, with a high degree of confidence the service would hear and understand you — almost like the Amazon Echo in your home but available with the same reliability anywhere you go. None of this is far-fetched based on Siri’s current capabilities, but current headphone hardware is not designed technically or socially for these use-cases. AirPods could be designed for having Siri in your ears to proactively keep you up-to-date without distracting from your surroundings.
Siri in your ears to proactively keep you up-to-date without distracting from your surroundings.
As invasive as this may sound initially, given its privacy practices, Apple is the only company I would even remotely trust with such a personal device. There is no company more likely to create this experience tastefully and with privacy as a top priority. There is no company better equipped to make a product like this that people will actually want. And if done well, there is no more efficient or helpful way to get contextual information while you’re on-the-go than having it spoken directly into your ears with no visual distraction.
Apple famously creates products that address all aspects of technology adoption, including social and psychological value. That’s why it puts so much thought into the appearance of its computers, so much care into the quality of wristbands that have no digital capability but are attached to its products, and why it’s hired the former CEOs of fashion brands Yves Saint Laurent and Burberry. Social signals matter to product adoption, so social signals matter to Apple.
Is Apple technologically prepared to bring something like this to market?
Tim Cook has said, “We believe that we need to own and control the primary technologies behind the products we make.” After thinking about AirPods as an audio-based Augmented Reality product, many of Apple’s existing technology investments and priorities begin to fall into place:
- Audio technology – hardware, software, and services: between widely adopted speaker and headphone technology, content management software, and voice recognition, Apple has probably learned more about creating great audio experiences than any company in the world.
- Voice recognition and artificial intelligence: Siri has become a major focus for Apple, recently improving its quality, expanding its scope to more functions, and adding proactive recommendations.
- Encryption and privacy: the secure enclave, encrypted iMessages, and local AI data processing, are foundational privacy capabilities.
- Wireless device connection: Apple’s experience integrating Bluetooth and Wifi to facilitate an always-on wireless connection between Apple Watch and iPhone, developing Airport Wifi basestations and proprietary Airplay wireless streaming technology demonstrate core wireless capabilities.
- Augmented Reality: Tim Cook has acknowledged Apple’s investment in core Augmented Reality technology, recently saying, “We have been and continue to invest a lot in AR,” and, “I think AR is extremely interesting and sort of a core technology.”
- Personal hardware: the original Apple I and II ushered in the idea of computers as personal devices rather than business tools, and the iPod, iPhone, and iPad have become even more personal with increased frequency of use, directness of interaction, and physical proximity to us. When Apple introduced their most “ambient” device to date, Apple Watch, the headline they used to describe it was “Apple’s most personal device ever.”
- Mass production: while this may not be traditionally considered a core product technology, Apple has invested billions of dollars in manufacturing technology to scale the production of device hardware – most of which includes sophisticated audio components.
Let me be clear: if Apple does announce detached “AirPods” on Wednesday, I do not expect the positioning to be for all-day wearing or even necessarily designed to let you “hear through them” to listen to the world around you at the same time. That would be too big of a leap and potentially perceived as too invasive. However, I do think they will lay the groundwork with some way to activate Siri from the AirPods, as a first step to getting people more comfortable thinking of ear-worn devices as an aural and oral interface. With that foundation, consistent additions of more Siri capabilities would slowly, then suddenly, increase the amount of time people spend wearing their AirPods — quickly moving from something that seems impossible to something that seems inevitable.
This strikes me as classically Apple: take a product that already exists and has for years (wireless earbuds), then rethink it and put it back together in a way that provides significantly broader application and more value to users — all implemented in a way that only Apple could. An audio-based Augmented Reality device extends Apple’s most consistent pursuit: delivering the most personal computer.
Audio-based Augmented Reality could also have major accessibility benefits for people with visual impairments. This piece represents my personal perspective and doesn’t represent any organization’s point of view. Follow me on Twitter @burger.