Future AirPods may switch to touch sensor for controls instead of force detection

Apple is looking at the switch from a force sensor in AirPods to a capacitive touchscreen system to make a set easier to control and offer new options.

The latest in Apple’s surprisingly long list of AirPods patents and patent applications is about improving the way you control them by touch. Currently, it takes quite a tap on the earpiece or squeeze the rod to answer calls or skip tracks, but a new idea can change that.

Most of a recently revealed patent application called “Portable Listening Device with Sensors” appears to be a description of existing AirPods or AirPods Pro. However, this really concentrates a significant difference with how the device’s sensor works.

“[AirPods have an exterior surface that defines a shape of the earbud such that the earbud is sized and shaped to be at least partially inserted into a user’s ear,” says the application. “[And] a touch sensor positioned within the housing and adjacent to the exterior surface. ”

This touch sensor defines “a touch sensitive region on a portion of the exterior surface of the housing and [is] configured to generate an interaction signal in response to detection of contact with a user’s finger. ”

Apple specifies that the application concerns the moment when “the touch sensor is a capacitive sensor”. It does not detail the difference between this and the current force sensor, but describes how, when the user touches the device, the system “senses contact via a change in capacitance.”

Capacitive sensors are able to detect when touched without requiring pressure or movement. Even with AirPods Pro, it’s possible to knock them out of your ear, so anything that gets in the way of you tapping or pulling on the rod is an improvement.

Apple’s patent application is more concerned with the specifics of how such a sensor routes data to the device than with the practical uses of the idea. But besides the ability to have a user touch instead of tapping the device, there might be a way to harness the technology to provide more controls.

For example, if the earpiece can detect contact, it can also detect movement. So changing the volume on a pair of AirPods can be done by simply sliding across the surface of one.

Detail of the patent showing how the circuits can be adapted to the shape of the earpiece

This patent application is credited to seven inventors, all of whom have several related prior patents. For example, Arun D. Chawan, Kurt Stiehl and Benjamin A. Cousins ​​are all listed on one of the related patents such as “Magnetic retention of headphones in the cavity”.

Their patent for a capacitive sensor follows many other Apple patents and applications. Most recently, these included a plan for AirPods to automatically adjust their audio to help users hear dangers.

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