Apple has an idea for immersive audio technology that could one day play an important role in its big plans for augmented reality

  • Apple has been granted a patent for a system that could split an audio signal into multiple paths, giving the impression that sound is coming from several areas rather than directly from a speaker.
  • The patent provides examples of how this technology could be used to shift sound into the foreground or background when consuming content through a laptop, with the goal being to make the viewing experience feel more immersive.
  • The patent comes after Apple was recently granted a separate patent for headphones that would make phone calls feel more immersive by placing the voices of callers in the room around you.
  • While patents don't provide an indication of Apple's upcoming products, this one does suggest that Apple is experimenting with new audio technologies as it's rumored to be working on an augmented reality headset.
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A newly granted Apple patent suggests the company could be exploring new ways to make digital audio feel more realistic, an effort that could be critical for the company as augmented reality is expected to become a bigger part of its product line.

Apple was recently granted patent detailing technology that could split an audio signal into multiple paths to give the impression that sound is coming from several areas rather than directly from the loudspeaker. The technology could be used to make entertainment feel more immersive, as noted in the patent which was first spotted by Patently Apple and other blogs.

"Audio signal processing for virtual acoustics can greatly enhance a movie, a sports event, a video game or other screen viewing experience, adding to the feeling of 'being there,'" the document reads.

The patent includes multiple examples of how this technology could be applied. One scenario outlined in the patent's drawings shows how the system could be used to make it seem like audio emanating from a laptop could be moved to the foreground so that it sounds like it's coming from farther away. Another example illustrates the opposite effect, showing how the tech can be used to shift audio to the background to make it seem like it's coming from behind the viewer.

It's not the first time in recent weeks that Apple has patented new audio technology. Back in November, the company was granted a patent for headphones that could make phone calls feel more natural by digitally placing the voices of callers in the room around you.

Apple headphones patent
Apple's headphone patent, which was granted in November.
United States Patent and Trademark Office

The technologies described in patents don't always materialize in new products, and patents alone aren't an indication that Apple is working on a particular product. But taken together, Apple's recent patents do suggest that the company could at least be exploring new ways to make audio feel more vivid by experimenting with technologies that virtually place audio coming from its gadgets in the environment around you.

The use cases in the patent seem to be focused on how this technology could one day be used in Apple's laptops, but it's easy to see how it could be helpful for boosting experiences in augmented reality, a technology that overlays digital content on top of the real world.

Apple already offers developers tools to make building high-quality AR apps for iPhones and iPads easier. But Apple is rumored to be investing more heavily in new hardware when it comes to augmented reality. 

For example, the company is expected to bring 3D cameras to its next-generation iPhone and iPad Pro that will make these gadgets even better at digitally recreating the world around them for AR apps, according to Bloomberg. Apple is also reportedly aiming to launch a standalone headset for augmented and virtual reality in 2021 or 2022, while lightweight AR glasses are said to be in the pipeline for 2023, Bloomberg also reported.

Apple CEO Tim Cook has also suggested that AR is a priority for Apple moving forward. During the company's first quarter earnings call in 2018, he called AR "profound," adding that Apple has put "a lot of energy" into the technology. Having an audio system that could make sound feel more immersive may be crucial to those efforts.

Augmented reality aside, it also wouldn't be surprising to see Apple invest additional resources in audio technology for its laptops. The company recently improved the audio in its 16-inch MacBook Pro by giving it six speakers instead of the four found in its older 15-inch MacBook Pro. Since improved audio quality is one of the main features that differentiates Apple's newest MacBook Pro from its predecessors, it would make sense that Apple could be thinking about how the new technologies it might be developing could be applied to its line of laptops.

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