2 min read

AirPods as Hearing Aids, Smart Ear Plugs, and a Social Network

I finally took the plunge and purchased the AirPod Pro 2’s, which feature the improved transparency mode and Active Noise Cancellation (ANC). Right off the bat, during a flight, I recognized how the new ANC nearly matches over-the-ear counterparts. Beyond the normal function of headphones, though, the new H2 chip makes the AirPods more multi-functional than I previously thought.

For example, AirPods have become smart earplugs.

Apple supercharged its Transparency feature to protect users’ ears from construction equipment, blaring car horns, and other sources of everyday urban noise, something it does by tapping the processing capabilities of the new, billion-transistors-strong, H2 chip.

Adaptive Transparency was also developed with concerts and other performances in mind, and that the same feature meant to shield your ears from nearby power tools could also save them from the aural assault of live rock n roll.

With Adaptive Transparency active, all sound above 85 dB is fully attenuated [concert noise peaked at 114 dB]. At the show, this created a comfortable listening level that still retained bass power and allowed for treble details like shimmering cymbals, squealing guitars, and shrill crowd whistles to come through. – Al Griffin

Lauren Dillard, a consultant to the World Health Organization and a postdoctoral fellow at the Medical University of South Carolina, led a study that found between 670 million and 1.35 billion young people are at risk for hearing loss due to headphone practices. Ironically, the same devices that are pouring decibels into our ears could help us as we lose our hearing.

The sound amplification on the Pros is adequate enough even to be used as hearing aids:

A study published in the journal iScience this month concluded that Apple’s AirPods Pro earbuds meet most of the benchmarks developed by the Consumer Technology Association for personal sound amplification products, despite not being marketed as hearing aid alternatives.

That could be a major boon to the estimated 30 million U.S. adults who could benefit from hearing aids—only about 20% of whom are currently using the devices. – Fierce Biotech

Audio Apps

Three years ago, when they introduced the H1 chip in the AirPods Pro, I wrote about how AirPods are now a computing platform, and Audio Apps aren’t far away. One of the apps I discussed was a social platform called TTYL that notified you when your friends were wearing their AirPods, prompting you to drop in on a spontaneous call. The Audio App never took off and Apple has yet to offer a developer kit for the AirPods platform.

Regardless, many wireless headphones are mini-computers waiting for novel experiences. Thus, I’m hopeful that the era of Audio Apps is among us.

AirPods as an interface is still a very interesting concept to me, especially considering how pervasive they are as a device. It’s not uncommon for people to use their AirPods for 5+ hours a day. Therefore, there’s ample opportunity to create app experiences for the AirPods.

Some AirPods Apps I envision include:

  • AirPods social network, which allows you to seamlessly create voice group texts/convos.
  • AirPods fitness tracker, which acts as a personal trainer and real-time channel for workout progress (like Vi Coach).
  • AirPods city guide, which narrates and provides contextual location-based information whether for guided tours, finding neighborhood eats, etc.
  • AirPods reminders, which I think have a lot of room for improvement, as Siri dictating reminders, texts, meetings, and other daily actions could be way better and more useful.

Overall, it’s fascinating to see what a cultural success AirPods have become, especially from their humble beginnings as an Internet joke. From custom AirPods cases to custom fit in-ear inserts for AirPods, there is an industry forming around these practical devices. As a computing interface, the AirPods are prime for a second act.