Recently, Apple submitted a patent application to the USPTO titled “User Identification Using Headphones,” which was discovered by Patently Apple. The
patent details how other “nearby devices, ultrasonic signals, voice recognition, and even a wearer’s gait” can be used to verify AirPods.
The primary goal of the patent is to solve the problem that AirPods cannot identify whether the user who is wearing them is authorized to use the device. This
can be problematic since anyone can use the AirPods while they are connected to a device that belongs to someone else, as Apple says. As a result, the linked
gadget runs the risk of disseminating private information, such as Siri notification announcements.
The patent-pending technology relies on a “similarity score” rather than Touch ID, Face ID, or any other biometric authentication on any other device to
confirm a user’s identification. This similarity score is determined by a variety of factors, including the proximity of other nearby devices that belong to the owner of the connected device.
Apple also states that biometrics “may still be utilized to improve the similarity score accuracy,” and that using the AirPods would “propose playing and receiving ultrasonic sounds inside the headphones” to achieve this goal.
According to the patent, “different properties of the user’s ear generate a unique echo of the ultrasonic signal.” The ultrasonic signal may reflect off the user’s
ear canal’s surface due to variations in the surface, creating an echo with the user’s unique signature. A user with a bigger ear canal, for instance, might cause
an echo to have a longer reverberation period than a user with a smaller ear canal.
Apple emphasized that the AirPods may also collect data from its microphones, gyroscopes, and accelerometers to record the user’s gait and use it to identify
whether or not they are the true owners of the connected device.
In order to verify a user, a similarity score will be generated from all of these data points “if it passes the appropriate threshold”.
The company has a history of updating the firmware on its existing AirPods to offer new capabilities, like support for Find My Network, Spatial Audio,
Conversation Boost, etc. Therefore, it is probable that the authentication feature will also be released as an OTA update if and when Apple does so. Now that
this feature is only in the patent stage, it is really impossible to predict when and when Apple will release it.
The newly submitted Apple patent application seeks to plug those security holes. In actuality, the upgraded AirPods would have the ability to biometrically
(and independently) confirm the user’s identification using a variety of modalities. The headphones would then only enable specific functions after identifying
the user. By doing this, Apple would be able to offer highly customized integrations with other gadgets while preserving the ability for users to share
headphones with confidence over the security of their personal information.
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The envisioned AirPods would be able to recognize wearers by their walk, their voice, or by scanning their inner ear. Possible Touch and Face ID services are
also mentioned in the patent application. An unauthorized wearer would be unable to utilize the AirPods to issue commands to a paired smartphone or vice
versa thanks to the biometric security feature’s ability to block communication in both directions.
Automatic biometric authentication, according to Apple, would expedite the setup of AirPods, enhancing battery life and lowering device power consumption.
Since several years ago, there have been rumors that Apple is developing biometric AirPods and is even developing equipment that would employ microphones to monitor the wearer’s breathing.
Other recent Apple patent filings included designs for all-glass iPhones and Apple Watches, a removable MacBook key that works as a mouse, and a hydration sensor for the Apple Watch.