Apple’s next hit product is just a whisper away

The next-generation AirPod 2 smart earbuds are on the way and will augment their existing listening skills with new health monitoring features, according to reports.

Apple, Apple Watch, digital health, accessibility, switch control
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The next-generation AirPod 2 smart earbuds are on the way and will augment their existing listening skills with new health-related features, reports claim.

Bone in my ear

AirPods don’t use bone conduction technology to create their sound (yet), but they do do an excellent job letting you listen to music, podcasts, conversations or even Voice Over/Switch Control user interface cues without wires.

From a critical start, Apple’s stealthy hit product has sold pretty well.

Spookily accurate Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo thinks Apple sold around 44 million AirPods since launch. Earlier this year, Apple CEO Tim Cook confirmed that “wearables” (including Apple Watch) are already generating more revenue than iPods ever did.

This year, they get an upgrade. A Digitimes report hints that models with new health monitoring tools will ship this year, while an earlier report from Bloomberg speculated inclusion of noise cancellation, water resistance, and improved wireless.

Deep within the rumor mill there continue to be claims around "Hey, Siri" support, true wireless charging, maybe through the case and improvements to the user interface. But what kind of digital health improvements might Apple put in place?

What would Apple's new earbuds do?

Apple has been exploring use of earbuds as health monitoring solutions for a long, long time.

As long ago as 2014 an Apple patent described how sensors inside earbuds could track speed, activity, temperature, perspiration, and heart rate. Apple Watch features accelerometer, gyroscope, and electrical heart rate sensors.

What unique solutions could Apple deliver via your ears?

We’re not scientists, doctors, or engineers, and we can only speculate, but here are some ideas:

  • CellScope makes an otoscope for iPhones. Can Apple parlay its existing work on imaging and machine learning to further miniaturize such technology?
  • Can cold or flu symptoms be picked up through analysis of the condition of a person’s ear canal?
  • Apple hasn’t confirmed its work on a non-invasive diabetes sensor, but diabetes complications can affect the inner ear. Can your ears provide any insight into the condition?
  • Might Apple’s technologies provide sound enrichment to help tinnitus sufferers enjoy slightly more comfortable lives?

The truth is that regulatory hurdles, battery life, and limitations around data networking and onboard processor power mean there is a finite limit on what health-related features Apple could pack inside next-generation AirPods.

Things change over time.

Tomorrow’s world will inevitably see sensors in headphones designed to measure all available data coupled with AI monitoring tools designed to evaluate accurate information based on that data.

What about Switch Control?

How do you use your AirPods?

Most of us use Siri to get so much done with Apple’s voice-driven user interface. Many may have memorized the many different tasks you can accomplish, even with one earbud.

Apple’s work in accessibility means that in addition to the user interface most people know, the company also offers ways to use its products fewer people are aware of.

(There’s a growing population of hard-of-hearing AirPod wearers who are using them alongside Live Listen technology so they can hear conversations, radio or TV.)

These “shadow operating systems” inside of iOS already exist — could they conceivably provide new ways with which to interact with wearable devices?

Think about Switch Control.

That 2014 Apple patent I mentioned earlier described how to use motion sensor data gathered by ear buds to support gesture-based controls.

This would do things such as play or pause your music in reaction to head movement. But if you can play a song by using a gesture, why not use the same control gesture to navigate your home screen?

If you can navigate that using head movement, what else can you control? A Mac? A TV? A car?

While great artists ship, they’re also proud of what never appears. And merely because an outcome is possible, it doesn’t mean Apple will deliver it. All the same, I think it will be very interesting to see how deeply Apple’s industry-leading accessibility features are baked inside the next-generation AirPod.

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