Apple's 'Star Trek communicator' patent could make wireless earbuds obsolete

Who needs earbuds when you can beam audio directly to your ears?

Apple AirPods Pro wireless earbuds being worn by a woman in a subway station
(Image credit: Apple)

The best wireless earbuds all have one thing in common: you have to stick them in your ears. But, wouldn't it be great if you could get audio to your ears without anything inserted anywhere?

Well, it turns out that two groups of people are trying to do just that: the engineers at Apple, and the teenagers on my local bus route. But while the teens are doing it with their phones' tiny speakers, Apple is boldly going in a different direction.

As AppleInsider reports (opens in new tab), Apple's patent may be called "Wearable device with directional audio" but it's really a Star Trek communicator badge in my opinion.

Audio kit for The Next Generation

Apple's patent is for a wearable device that emits audio in such a way that you hear it but the rest of the bus / starship doesn't. As Apple describes it, audio waves "can be focused by a parametric array of speakers that limit audibility by others". That means other people don't get to hear what you hear.

Why is that better than headphones? According to Apple, headphones can be "somewhat obtrusive to wear and can inhibit the user's ability to hear ambient sounds or simultaneously interact with others". And that's true, but they also deliver something I'm struggling to imagine this device delivering: bass, and lots of it.

I've reviewed and tested a few directional audio products, such as smart glasses with speakers designed to send audio directly to your ears without disturbing others, and while they do work as advertised they're very quiet and very flat-sounding: I would rather buy any one of the best cheap headphones, or make my own communicator with two tin cans and a bit of string. So I can't imagine a communicator-style device being any good for Apple Music, but there might be a role for it in places like hospitals or other organisations where hands-free, private communications are important.

As ever with patents there's no indication that Apple will actually make this, or that if it does it'll be anything like the device described in the patent. But it's interesting to imagine how it might work, especially with a future Apple AR/VR headset that's more like a skinny pair of glasses than a PSVR 2.

Writer, musician and broadcaster Carrie Marshall has been covering technology since 1998 and is particularly interested in how tech can help us live our best lives. Her CV is a who’s who of magazines, newspapers, websites and radio programmes ranging from T3, Techradar and MacFormat to the BBC, Sunday Post and People’s Friend. Carrie has written thirteen books, ghost-wrote two more and co-wrote another seven books and a Radio 2 documentary series. When she’s not scribbling, she’s the singer in Glaswegian rock band HAVR (havrmusic.com (opens in new tab)).