Skip to main content

Apple headphone intercom feature likely to follow Apple Watch and HomePod

We always caution that you can never tell which Apple patents will actually make it into products, but a patent for an Apple headphone intercom feature has to be a good bet.

Apple first debuted an intercom feature — albeit branded as walkie-talkie — on the Apple Watch. A couple of years later, it brought a more advanced version of the same idea to HomePod. And now an Apple patent application describes how the company might bring another more advanced form of intercom functionality to headphones…

Patently Apple spotted the patent.

The US Patent & Trademark Office published a patent application from Apple that relates to a wireless communication device establishing voice communication between a supported user and a selected remote device supporting another user via a point-to-point wireless ad hoc network link.

While in one part the patent covers Apple’s Walkie-Talkie feature, another feature highlighted in this report relates to Apple’s future over-ear headphones being able to quickly establish voice communications with another headphone set nearby, so that a couple could communicate about a show they’re watching without having to stop the content.  

Apple suggests the feature could be particularly useful in a noisy environment — and especially at a time when social distancing is encouraged.

For example, where two individuals are in close proximity in a noisy environment, direct (i.e. spoken) audio communication between the individuals may be difficult in view of interference from ambient noise, which can hinder one or both individuals from being able to distinguish words spoken by the other individual. Such ambient noises may require both individuals to approach within a certain proximity of each other, which can hinder freedom of movement of one or both users for the duration of the direct communication.

In some cases, unhindered freedom of movement of one or both users may be desirable. For example, the users may desire to maintain a minimum distance between each other for cultural reasons, lack of familiarity with each other, a desire to avoid impinging upon each other’s personal space, a desire to minimize contact with bodily odors and discharges of other individuals, some combination thereof, etc. 

It is, though, odd to see Apple justify the feature by effectively implying that using an iPhone to make a phone call is somehow a convoluted process!

 Furthermore, configurations of many communication devices can complicate, if not outright hinder, close-proximity audio communications between users, as time requirements involved in establishing audio communication with particular users can have a pronounced effect when users are in close proximity.

For example, a user desiring to establish audio communication with another user in close proximity via a cellular phone may need to access a contact address database in the cellular phone via a contact address application, navigate to a contract entry in the database which is associated with the other user, identify and select a contact address in the entry, and wait for a connection link to be established with another cellular phone of the other user, all while the other user remains in close proximity. Such a process can impose time delays.

I mean, OK, it does go on to argue that sometimes it can take longer to connect the call than say what you want to say, but it amused me.

Apple illustrates the patent with drawings of over-the-ear headphones, which is what we’re expecting from an anticipated AirPods Studio product, but the company always uses very generic illustrations, so nothing should be read into that. If Apple does launch the feature, it will likely do so with in-ear AirPods, too.

Apple also shows an AirDrop-style UI to select the person or people with whom you want to talk.

FTC: We use income earning auto affiliate links. More.

You’re reading 9to5Mac — experts who break news about Apple and its surrounding ecosystem, day after day. Be sure to check out our homepage for all the latest news, and follow 9to5Mac on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn to stay in the loop. Don’t know where to start? Check out our exclusive stories, reviews, how-tos, and subscribe to our YouTube channel



Avatar for Ben Lovejoy Ben Lovejoy

Ben Lovejoy is a British technology writer and EU Editor for 9to5Mac. He’s known for his op-eds and diary pieces, exploring his experience of Apple products over time, for a more rounded review. He also writes fiction, with two technothriller novels, a couple of SF shorts and a rom-com!

Ben Lovejoy's favorite gear