The next Apple AirPods might not be a pair of in-ear headphones at all.
A recently discovered Apple patent application (via Patently Apple (opens in new tab)) shows that the company is exploring a new category of wearable audio device, which could become part of the AirPods family of true wireless earbuds and headphones.
Like the invisible headphones we saw at CES earlier this year, the patent describes an audio module that can direct audio waves to the ears of a user. However, unlike the Noveto N1, which looks like a small soundbar, Apple's patented device can be worn on the clothing of the user, with an image showing how it could be attached to a collar.
To prevent the user's music from disturbing others (and to offer a modicum of privacy), the audio waves would be focused by a 'parametric array of speakers that limit audibility to others'.
The patent application also describes how the device could react to the surroundings or properties of the user, with microphones to detect sound and other sensors. While the application doesn't go into much detail about the kinds of sensors this could include, we can imagine a capacitive force sensor being used to automatically play/pause music when it detects that the device has been removed from the user's clothing.
It's an interesting concept and one that could bring personal music listening on the go to people that don't like the bulk of over-ear headphones or the intrusive nature of in-ear headphones.
As the patent application points out, 'many audio headsets are somewhat obtrusive to wear and can inhibit the user's ability to hear ambient sounds or simultaneously interact with others near the user'.
How likely is a pair of Apple invisible headphones?
It's hard to say whether Apple would actually release the device described in the patent application, but it's important to remember that a patent filing never guarantees that a product will see the light of day.
For what it's worth, we don't think it's super likely. Apple tends to let other companies experiment with new technologies and form factors before launching its own version. The tech giant has a reputation for making devices that 'just work', and committing to an unproven technology could be disastrous if it didn't live up to Apple's standards.
If Apple is trying to get around some of the issues associated with wearing headphones, there are other ways to do it. For instance, people who want to be able to listen to music without shutting themselves off from the world could use wireless earbuds like the Sony LinkBuds, which feature an open driver design that keeps your ears free to hear your surroundings.
In any case, Apple is pretty prolific when it comes to filing patents, particularly those related to personal audio devices. We've seen lots of patents for the next pair of AirPods - the rumored AirPods Pro 2 - which describe everything from buds that can measure your blood oxygen, to truly lossless audio streaming that swaps Bluetooth connectivity for optical pairing.
In other words, we'll believe it when we (don't) see it.