Apple looking into a virtual acoustic system involving AirPods

Apple wants to get into your head — acoustically, that is. The tech giant has filed for a patent (number 2019014366) for a “system to move sound into and out of a listener’s head using a virtual acoustic system.” It likely involves upcoming tweaks to the company’s AirPods.

A virtual acoustic system is an audio system (e.g., a digital audio signal processor that renders a sound program into speaker driver signals that are to drive a number of speakers) that gives a listener the illusion that a sound is emanating from somewhere in space when in fact the sound is emanating from loudspeakers placed elsewhere.

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One common form of a virtual acoustic system is one that uses a combination of headphones (e.g., earbuds) and binaural digital filters to recreate the sound as it would have arrived at the ears if there were a real source placed somewhere in space. In another example of a virtual acoustic system, crosstalk cancelled loudspeakers (or cross talk cancelled loudspeaker driver signals) are used to deliver a distinct sound-pressure signal to each ear of the listener. 

Here’s Apple’s summary of the patent: “In a device or method for rendering a sound program for headphones, a location is received for placing the sound program with respect to first and second ear pieces. If the location is between the first ear piece and the second ear piece, the sound program is filtered to produce low-frequency and high-frequency portions. The high-frequency portion is panned according to the location to produce first and second high-frequency signals. 

“The low-frequency portion and the first high-frequency signal are combined to produce a first headphone driver signal to drive the first ear piece. A second headphone driver signal is similarly produced. The sound program may be a stereo sound program. The device or method may also provide for a location that is between the first ear piece and a near-field boundary. Other aspects are also described.

Of course, Apple files for — and is granted — lots of patents by the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office. Many are for inventions that never see the light of day. However, you never can tell which ones will materialize in a real product.