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Future Apple headphones could detect which ear they've been put on

Detail from an Apple patent regarding headphones with orientation detection

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Apple may be in on the early phases of designing small over-the-ear headphones which can detect which ear the device is in, to tailor the audio environment.

According to two separate filings revealed by the US Patent & Trademark Office, Apple has been working to design circumural, or over the ear, headphones that are both smaller and more convenient. Specifically, one patent is to do with a method of detecting whether or not you are wearing the headphones the correct way around, with the left earpiece over your left ear, for instance.

"Headphones have now been in use for over 100 years," reads Apple's patent application number 20190238963, "but the design of the mechanical frames used to hold the earpieces against the ears of a user have remained somewhat static."

"For this reason," it contines, "some over-head headphones are difficult to easily transport without the use of a bulky case or by wearing them conspicuously about the neck when not in use. Furthermore, headphones users are required to manually verify that the correct earpieces are aligned with the ears of a user any time the user wishes to use the headphones."

This patent includes claims by Apple to do with making the headphones smaller to carry, involving changing the design of the headband, or part that goes between the two earpieces. The familiar curved headband could be changed by using a spring-drive mechanism.

"The mechanism can be positioned near the top of the earpiece, allowing it to be incorporated within the earpiece instead of being external to the earpiece. In this way, pivoting functionality can be built into the earpieces without adding to the overall bulk of the headphones."

Apple's patent also describes how this headband could then be flattened against the earpieces for when it has to be carried.

This patent mentions the use of a sensor that detects which way the headphones are being worn, and states that at the same time, this could be a power-saving feature.

Detail from a patent regarding folding a headband for transport
Detail from a patent regarding folding a headband for transport

"The orientation of the earpieces with respect to the band can be used to determine whether or not the headphones are being worn over the ears of a user," it says. "This information can then be used to put the headphones into a standby mode or shut the headphones down entirely when the headphones are not determined to be positioned over the ears of a user."

The separate patent number 20190238968 concentrates on these position-detection features using specific control circuitry.

"The control circuitry may, for example, reverse left and right audio channel assignments in response to determining that the headphones are being worn in a reversed orientation," says the patent.

"The machine learning classifier may be used to determine whether the headphones are being worn in a reversed or unreversed orientation," it continues.

The existence of a patent does not guarantee that Apple is planning to release a particular product, nor does it show current work within the company. While made public this week, the patent regarding headphones with orientation sensors was filed by Apple in January 2018.

Currently Apple sells over the ear headphones only via its Beats brand, but other headphone patents have pointed to more work being done its own AirPods range and potentially its PowerBeats ones as well.