Wednesday, February 1, 2012

One Per Cent - Earphones that know when they're in the wrong ear

Jacob Aron, technology reporter
(Image: OJO Images/Rex Features)

Mixing up your left and right earphones might be one of the most minor annoyances in modern life, but think of the precious few seconds you'd save if it didn't happen. Such stress-free listening could be just around the corner, thanks to researchers at the Igarashi Design Interfaces Project in Tokyo, Japan, who have come up with a pair of "Universal Earphones" that automatically switch audio channels when placed in the wrong ear.
Ensuring the correct stereo match is important for audiophiles who want to hear music as it was originally mixed, as well as film buffs or gamers who enjoy 3D sound to go with their on-screen visuals. It turns out that ear side detection is surprisingly simple, thanks to a proximity sensor attached to one earphone that measures the distance to your ear.
Place the earphone on the right and the sensor points to the back of your head, detecting the ear behind it, while swapping to the left ear means the sensor points in front of you into the open air. A small embedded audio circuit swaps channels when the sensor detects a mismatch.
These new earphones also solve another common listening problem - sharing your 'phones with a friend, which - as anyone who has listened to just one half of a Beatles song (or any other track with hard audio panning) knows - isn't the most satisfying musical experience.
When worn by a single user the Universal Earphones run a weak electrical current from one side to the other, but this connection is broken if the earphones are shared between two users, causing each speaker to play both left and right channels through at once.
The researchers will present their work at Intelligent User Interface conference in Lisbon, Portugal later this month, but they also have further plans for improving ordinary earphones, including skin conductance sensors that detect whether the earphones are actually in your ear, which would let them automatically pause or resume your music on removal or insertion.
The shared-use detection could also pipe entirely different tracks to each user, letting two people use one audio player to listen to their own music.

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