Apple’s resolutely popular AirPods are facing a new type of competition in 2020 from two unlikely sources: Google and Microsoft.
Not in sound quality, not in design and not in brand awareness. Those fights – largely won by Apple – are old hat. The new battleground is earbud IQ: how smart the headphones are and what else they can do apart from blast music into your ear canal.
Google set the pace with confirmation that the Pixel Buds will receive “feature drops”, which first debuted on the Pixel phone. In essence, they’re regular feature updates that will bring new functionality to the Pixel Buds months – or even years – after launch.
Google has remained tight-lipped about what to expect from the first feature drop, but previous updates for Pixel phones have introduced meaty new abilities like portrait mode for old pictures and call screening.
Similarly, Microsoft has laced its Surface Earbuds with smart features, including reading Outlook emails out aloud and live voice transcription for PowerPoint slides.
But new information about future AirPods suggests Apple may be following the example set by its rivals. A report in DigiTimes (via MacRumours), based on information given to the publication, claims that a future pair of AirPods could include ambient light sensors.
The light sensors, as DigiTimes speculates, could be used to measure health data including step counts, monitoring heart rate and keeping an eye on other health conditions.
These newly beefed-up AirPods could land in the next “1-2 years” DigiTimes reports. But the publication’s track record of interpreting supply chain information given to it is mixed, as MacRumours explains.
“DigiTimes’ sources often provide reliable information, but the site has a mixed track record when it comes to interpreting that information and accurately deciphering Apple’s plans.”
Continuing with: “early last year, DigiTimes claimed that Apple would release next-generation AirPods with “health monitoring features” in the first half of 2019. While Apple launched second-generation AirPods in March 2019, health monitoring smarts were conspicuously absent.”
With that caveat aside, including health monitoring features in future AirPods would make a lot of sense for Apple considering its ample work in health and fitness tracking via its Health app and the Apple Watch.
The light sensors in these future AirPods may be conceptually similar to how the Apple Watch measures heart rate. The Apple Watch houses an optical heart sensor, which employs a technique called photoplethysmography to gather data. As Apple describes it:
“Blood is red because it reflects red light and absorbs green light. Apple Watch uses green LED lights paired with light‑sensitive photodiodes to detect the amount of blood flowing through your wrist at any given moment.”
As MacRumours notes it’s not clear if this light sensor technology could fit into the current design of the AirPods. It might make more sense in Apple’s larger fitness related headphones, such as the Powerbeats Pro.
However the technology is deployed, though – and if this information is accurate – it shows how dramatically wireless headphones could be about to change.
It was only a matter of time before wireless earbuds were given the same ‘smart’ treatment as other tech accessories. But it’s interesting to see Apple taking a different route to Google by drawing on the success of its biometric measurements tech rather than compete with the AI prowess of Google Assistant.
Apple’s Airpods, and wireless headphones in general, could look and behave very differently in the next two years.
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