Apple Working on Camera-Equipped AirPods for Vision Pro

Apple AirPods Pro Credit: ErickPHOTOPRO / Shutterstock
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Apple is reportedly working on a new generation of AirPods that will pack in infrared cameras to help provide better Spatial Audio experiences, particularly when used with a Vision Pro.

While these are still a ways off, well-known analyst Ming-Chi Kuo said in a Medium post that Apple is already preparing to mass-produce these new AirPods within the next two years, and will feature “an IR camera similar to the iPhone Face ID receiver.” Kuo is presumably referring to an element of the TrueDepth camera system used on the iPhone and iPad Pro. However, he emphasizes that it will be the receiver and “not the transmitter.”

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According to Kuo, these AirPods will be primarily designed to act as an accessory to the Vision Pro:

The new AirPods is expected to be used with Vision Pro and future Apple headsets to enhance the user experience of spatial audio and strengthen the spatial computing ecosystem. For example, when a user is watching a video with Vision Pro and wearing this new AirPods, if users turn their heads to look in a specific direction, the sound source in that direction can be emphasized to enhance the spatial audio/computing experience.

The IR cameras could also be used to assist with user interactions by handling gesture detection, Kuo suggests. While the current Vision Pro already has a comprehensive array of cameras and sensors to deal with this, building IR cameras into a set of AirPods could be one solution to enhance these experiences for a lower-cost version of the headset.

Apple has reportedly been working on developing a standard “Vision” version of its spatial computing headset since before the Vision Pro was even announced last year. However, the company is said to have been struggling to figure out where to cut corners to get the price down into the desired $1,500–2,000 range.

There’s no solid information on which features might be on the chopping block, but speculation from informed sources includes removing the EyeSight display (the external screen that shows a visual indicator of your eyes), dropping the resolution of the internal screens, going to an iPhone-tethered setup to reduce on-device processing requirements, or scaling back the cameras and sensors.

We’ve heard conflicting reports on what Apple may do with the internal displays, with some sources saying that Apple plans to keep the displays the same as the ones used, not the Vision Pro. However, last week Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman noted that Apple could reduce the specs of the screens by using a less powerful chip. Over the weekend, a new report in South Korea’s The Elec (via MacRumors) revealed that Apple is shopping around with other suppliers in search of larger, lower-resolution panels.

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Removing cameras and sensors seems plausible in light of the new Spatial Video Recording capabilities on the iPhone 15 Pro — a feature that’s also expected to come to the entire iPhone 16 lineup later this year. An iPhone is a better way to capture 3D spatial videos anyway since it’s the device you always have with you. After all, most people aren’t too likely to wear their Vision Pro to significant life events (unless you’re this guy).

Moving some of the spatial sensors to the AirPods could be another way of lowering the cost of the new Vision headset. This could be based on the assumption that most Vision Pro buyers already own AirPods (or are likely to buy a pair), or it could be a matter of offering basic environmental recognition in the headset that would be further enhanced by adding the new AirPods to the mix.

Kuo isn’t clear on whether these would be a standard set of AirPods or AirPods Pro or a special version designed to work with the Vision Pro and other spatial computing products. If Apple intends to add these camera upgrades to the normal consumer-level AirPods, they’ll likely come to the AirPods Pro first, if not exclusively, as the latest USB-C version of the AirPods Pro 2 already offer lossless Spatial Audio with the Vision Pro.

Meanwhile, we’re expecting to see fourth-generation AirPods debut later this year in two different models, with a higher-end version that will bring Active Noise Cancellation to the standard earbuds for the first time. Third-generation AirPods Pro are expected to arrive next year, so if Kuo’s information is correct, these newer IR-equipped AirPods won’t come until sometime after the entire current lineup has been refreshed.

[The information provided in this article has NOT been confirmed by Apple and may be speculation. Provided details may not be factual. Take all rumors, tech or otherwise, with a grain of salt.]

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