For some tech aficionados, predicting future Apple releases could well be a full-time job. Costs, release dates, improved hardware, new widgets… the rumour mill never lets up. In certain circles, it may seem like a strange pastime – debating the benefits of features that may never see the light of day – but I find it fascinating.
One rumour that has been swirling for some time concerns new AirPod technology.
In late August, TechRadar published details of a new patent awarded to Apple (unearthed by Patently Apple), which could see future iterations of their popular earbuds become truly wireless for the first time. The article explains:
"[The patent] describes how in-air gestures – for example hovering a hand over the AirPods – could work alongside the touch controls already employed by the AirPods Pro, allowing you to trigger different actions.
"An initial tap on the earstem could alert the AirPods to an incoming gesture – and while Apple hasn't gone into specifics on the type of gestures that could be used and their effects, it's plausible that cupping a hand over your ear could turn off noise cancellation or pause your music, or swiping forwards in front of the earbud could skip tracks, for example.
"It works by using capacitive sensors to detect the proximity of the user to the AirPods."
Such an update would surely improve accessibility for those who struggle with fiddly controls, or find themselves too out of breath from their 10k run to use voice commands effectively. Not to mention how disconcerting it is to hear a fellow traveller say “Hey Siri, play You’re the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly”. And, yes, it’s a real song.
But in-air gestures aren’t new.
If you have a Pixel 4 phone from Google, it’s already possible to control it without making physical contact. By enabling Motion Sense within the settings, users can utilise “quick gestures” to silence interruptions (for instance snooze an alarm, turn off a timer or mute a call), skip songs (if you’ve had enough Country & Western for one day!), and play or pause music.
A blog from Google’s “Ask a Techspert” series, explains the technology behind it:
"With the motion sensing functions on the Pixel, Brandon [Barbello, Google product manager] and his team use machine learning to determine what happened. 'Those radio waves get analyzed and reduced into a series of numbers that can be fed into the machine learning models that detect if a reach or a swipe has just happened,' Brandon says. 'We collected millions of motion samples to pre-train each phone to recognize intentional swipes. Specifically, we’ve trained the models to detect motions that look like they come from a human hand, and not, for instance, a coffee mug passing over the phone as you put it down on the table.'”
Interestingly, Motion Sense only works in countries where it has been approved. So, whilst it will work in the US, Canada, Singapore, Australia, Taiwan, Japan and most European countries, the frequencies at which it operates aren’t legal in others.
By the looks of it, however, the affected countries didn’t miss much. Back in October 2019, Dieter Bohn wrote for The Verge:
The gap between things that Motion Sense could do and what it actually does in this first version is huge. In theory, putting radar on a phone is a revolution. In practice, it could be seen as just a gimmick.
He was right.
In a May 2020 article, TechRadar predicted that Google Pixel 5 will dump the Pixel 4’s “most unpopular feature”:
"Motion Sense was the hallmark feature of the Google Pixel 4 series, and was enabled by Google's Soli motion-sensing radar tech. It enabled users to navigate the interface, and control various apps, using gestures, without having to physically interact with their device.
"But while the Pixel 4 was the first device to sport Soli, it also seems like it will be the last from Google.
"Motion Sense was novel, but it was far from perfect: many users claimed that it didn’t always work as advertised, and its functionality was limited to just a few apps."
Still I don’t expect we’ll be waving bye-bye to gesture technology for any length of time. When done right, it could be game-changing. And it’s not only smartphones that could benefit from accurate gesture control in the future.
In an article from November 2019, The Gadget Flow lists nine devices “you need to see to believe” ranging from HiiDii Glasses (which allows you to control devices with the blink of an eye) to MirroCool Personal Assistant Smart Mirror (wink at yourself to take a selfie!), there are some very fun and quirky innovations on the horizon.
One that I’d love to see first-hand is the Tap Strap 2 – a wearable peripheral controller designed to replace a physical keyboard:
"This device is a wearable for your fingers. Once you slide it on, it registers your movements as you type on an invisible keyboard. Of course, you’ll need to know the layout of a keyboard, but who doesn’t these days? Amazingly, along with typing on a surface, you can also type in mid-air as it can track the relative placement of your fingers. Talk about futuristic technology."
Judging by reviews, however, it’s unlikely to take off anytime soon.
Deemed “an answer in search of a question” in a review by Wired, it seems the technology is far too cumbersome for regular use:
"Have you ever wished that you could wear your keyboard or mouse on one hand like a glove? Me neither, but that's what the Tap Strap 2 does. It's a wearable you slip over your preferred hand's fingers and thumb, and through a series of taps or by sliding your hand on a flat surface, you can use it like an invisible mouse and keyboard for anything with Bluetooth—your phone, laptop, virtual reality headset, Apple TV, and more.
"It sounds exciting and futuristic. But after wearing it for weeks, the steep learning curve and difficultly I had putting it on and taking it off, not to mention the Strap's incorrect registrations, have made me run back to my wonderfully physical mouse and keyboard with open, unconstricted hands."
Over to Apple. Can they design a device which is genuinely useful, comfortable to wear and actually works? It’s an area they have more than a little experience in, but only time will tell…