Noise-canceling headphones provide a peaceful haven for those trying to work or sleep in loud environments, but make it difficult to hear when someone really needs your attention.
To address this problem, Amazon has outlined plans for headphones that selectively listen out for certain sound patterns – such as someone saying a specific keyword, such as your name.
Noise-canceling headphones have microphones that listen to the sound coming from the outside world – the chatter, traffic or building work – and actively mute those frequencies. Amazon is proposing a design, for which the company has just been awarded a patent, that would analyze the incoming noise and listen for specific trigger words, phrases or sounds – for example, “Hey, Judy.”
Upon recognizing the keyword or phrase, the device would temporarily stop canceling noise so that the headphone wearer could hear outside sounds. The patent documents suggest that the same temporary suspension of the noise-canceling capabilities could also be triggered by an electronic, non-audio signal sent from a second device, such as a doorbell.
The company has already developed sophisticated listening technology forAmazon Echo, the voice-controlled speaker that allows users to interact with a virtual assistant called Alexa. Echo listens for the command “Hey, Alexa” before firing up. It works well even when Echo is playing loud music or there is other background conversation and noise.
The patent filing lists Benjamin Scott and Mark Rafn, both software engineers for Amazon, as inventors. Scott’s LinkedIn profile lists his job title as Alexa Information, suggesting that the patent could be related to improving the user experience with the company’s voice-activated virtual assistant.
Perhaps the company is thinking about the safety of people walking around with hazard-muffling headsets. Or it might be considering putting a virtual assistant into earbuds, as we saw in Spike Jonze’s film Her. Or perhaps it’s simply looking at ways that people could customize Alexa to allow her to selectively listen for keywords of their choosing? Or it could just be another patent left to gather dust in Amazon’s intellectual property cupboard.
Amazon isn’t the only company interested in technology with selective hearing. The New York-based startup Doppler Labs has been working on “active listening” earbuds that allow you to enhance or eliminate certain frequencies depending on your preferences – so you can reduce the sound of a baby crying or boost the bass in a club.
Doppler Labs’ CEO, Noah Kraft, believes that audio is the “next great frontier for computing”. He didn’t know whether Amazon was planning to put Alexa into headphones, but said it was “the logical next step”.
Amazon’s Alexa works well because it’s built into a large tabletop device with good quality microphones that sits in your home and connects to the internet. Bringing the same technology into headphones is much more difficult, Kraft explains, as latency – the delay between picking up sounds and responding to them – is much more noticeable.
“Having a giant thing sitting on a desk is very different from processing on the bud,” he said. “It has to happen in real time. It’s not helpful if a siren hits your ear and then a second later gets reduced.”