At WWDC on 22nd June, the first of its kind to be a fully virtual event, the headlines will undoubtably be about the move to silicon chips in Macs and the new features of iOS14. However, there were a couple of interesting innovations surrounding AirPods, which may have gone under the radar. These features, whilst only receiving a small mention, not only have the potential to vastly enhance Apple’s dominant product line, but also may pave the way for fresh use-cases and new products for the whole industry. Here are the top five reasons why adding spatial audio processing to the AirPods Pro is more important than it seems:
Driven forward by the huge rise in SVoD, spatial audio has become a feature of many content platforms over the last year or so, with premium SVoD subscriptions boasting 7.1, 5.1 or Dolby Atmos enabled content to provide a more immersive experience. This kind of content is being consumed in different ways, with an ever-increasing number of consumers wanting a cinematic experience across multiple devices, be that laptops, tablets or mobile phones. This new announcement from Apple addresses that need, providing an enhanced cinematic experience delivered in a much smaller form-factor. Typically, this wireless immersive experience for TV watching has been delivered through over-ear headphones at premium prices for the more advanced features, such as the Dolby Dimension or in solutions like the JVC ‘Exofield Theatre’ headphones, which require an amplifier connected to the TV to experience immersive audio, similar to a multi-channel speaker set-up. The ability to deliver such content in a true wireless form fits neatly within Apple’s ecosystem and the company’s increased focus on services, such as Apple TV.
CES 2020 saw various announcements involving sound processing technologies designed to deliver immersive and augmented sound experiences both for music and home entertainment solutions. One example is Dirac’s 3D Audio solution that works through a smartphone app to deliver corrected audio in headphones equipped with the technology. The app corrects the sound to deliver immersive and adaptive sound. This correction can be applied to any audio feed, including music, video streaming and YouTube. Additionally, we have seen a move from some of the music streaming services to provide the experience of ‘3D’ sound, with formats including Dolby Atmos for Music and Sony’s 360 Reality Audio. Whilst the number of songs and platforms are currently very limited (Amazon Music HD, Tidal and Deezer HiFi), Apple’s latest development is paving the way for built-in spatial audio in true wireless products. It could drive growth of 3D music offerings as other brands follow Apple’s lead by including this technology in their own true wireless portfolio. Consumers have rapidly adopted true wireless, so this move could signal a real opportunity to bring 3D music to the masses.
The gaming headset market has skyrocketed over the last few months, particularly because of the lockdown effect of the global pandemic in many countries. Spatial audio within gaming is no new trend. However, with next generation consoles (Series X and PS5) boasting significant leaps forward in terms of spatial audio, this will likely fuel growth for this feature. Implementing spatial audio processing into AirPods and TWS products reinforces the potential to use TWS as an alternative for mobile gaming. With spend on mobile gaming software expected to grow in the next few years, particularly in Asia Pacific, and with in-ear already accounting for up to a fifth of gaming headset sales in some countries, the opportunity for a TWS solution with a ‘gaming mode’ offering low latency and spatial audio effects is there for the taking.
Rumours surrounding Apple’s interest in AR hardware persist, further fuelled by last month’s proposed $100 million purchase of NextVR. The introduction of spatial audio in its flagship audio product will perhaps feed this speculation further, since the ability to track positioning is pivotal for XR applications and this could now be delivered in AirPods Pro by tracking head movements and using sophisticated algorithms to deliver immersive audio.
One of the new accessibility features announced is Headphone Accommodations, which Apple says, ‘amplifies soft sounds and tunes audio to help music, movies, phone calls, and podcasts sound crisper and clearer.’ This could be an important step for the next Over the Counter (OTC) hearables, particularly for people with mild hearing loss, offering a much cheaper solution than a hearing aid to achieve hearing enhancement by creating a virtual acoustic ‘space’ providing new use-cases in hearing health, such as the ability to position audio in crowded rooms, and/or around a boardroom. Interestingly, this feature will be available not just on AirPods Pro but in all Apple’s and Beats’ headphones using the H1 chipset, such as AirPods second generation, Powerbeats, Powerbeats Pro and Beats Solo Pro. Beyond consumer applications, spatial audio could also increase use cases for true wireless as ‘office hearables.’ It could deliver enhanced hearing in the office or in education, by enabling the wearer to listen from the back of a conference room or a lecture theatre.
Apple is once again leading the way, this time by delivering Spatial Audio into a true wireless form factor. It has not disclosed when the firmware update will be available, but - by the end of March - there were already 14 million AirPods Pro owners who could benefit from this upgrade. It will be interesting to see how it performs in view of the technical challenges this technology will bring in terms of latency and power consumption.
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