- Facebook is thinking about using "cartilage conduction" technology to provide sound without using headphones.
- In a patent, Facebook describes using the tech to vibrate your ears, so you can hear sound coming from a headset without blocking out the ambient audio of the world around you.
- Facebook is quietly developing an augmented reality headset, and recently restructured the team working on the project.
Facebook is thinking about a novel approach to providing sound in augmented reality: "cartilage conduction" technology that would allow you to hear sound from a computer without having to wear headphones.
Adding sound to virtual reality is pretty straightforward — the user’s headset replaces the entire world with virtual imagery, so they can pop a pair of headphones or speakers on to complete the illusion. But with augmented reality, where virtual objects are overlaid via a display over the real world, it’s more tricky; users might benefit from added sound, but traditional headphones could block out sound from real life entirely.
Facebook’s potential solution, which it details in a patent application filed in late February, is to avoid headphones entirely. Instead, the patent suggests building a "transducer" that sits behind the user’s ear, and vibrates the cartilage in the ear, producing sound without blocking ambient audio from the surrounding world.
"A user wearing a head-mounted display in a VR, AR, and MR system can benefit from keeping the ear canal open and not covered by an audio devices. For example, the user can have a more immersive and safer experience and receive spatial cues from ambient sound when the ear is unobstructed," the patent explains.
Tech giants like Facebook file for hundreds of patents, and so there’s no guarantee that this idea will ever make its way into a commercial product. But it does provide a window into how Facebook is thinking about solving some of the core problems facing augmented reality headsets as its own efforts inch closer to an eventual launch.
In January 2019, Business Insider reported that Facebook had restructured its augmented reality glasses division — moving hundreds of employees from the research-focused unit Facebook Reality Labs to a standalone product team focused on AR.
The employees had already been working on AR tech at the Reality Labs group prior to the move, and the shift indicates Facebook continues to be focused on developing augmented-reality hardware and that its approach is shifting from something experimental and research-driven, to a focus on delivering actual commercial products.
Other companies have explored similar bone conduction technology before. Bose, for example, features similar technology in a pair of sunglasses that lets users listen to music without having to wear headphones.
Facebook declined to comment for this story.
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