Why adding cameras to AirPods could be a bad idea

Opinion: Reportedly, Apple is exploring adding cameras and sensors to AirPods, but that could be hard to justify.

Why adding cameras to AirPods could be a bad idea

Key Takeaways

  • Apple is exploring adding cameras to earbuds as part of expanding wearables, but practical limitations may hinder functionality.
  • Privacy concerns with earbud cameras are important to consider, as vulnerabilities and data protection issues may arise.
  • Reliance on consumer tech for accessibility may be problematic, as earbuds may not effectively replace vital assistive devices.

In a February edition of Bloomberg's Power On newsletter, Mark Gurman reported that Apple is exploring how to advance the world of wearables. That innovation includes possibly incorporating built-in cameras along with better AI and health sensors, with the cameras potentially helping people with daily routines by using the data captured through the camera along with AI processing. Additionally, the cameras could ome in handy for features like fall detection or workout detection.

Why adding cameras to AirPods could be a bad idea

It could potentially help you out with directions on a running route, or alert you if there's something of note happening around you that you're unaware of. On-board cameras have the potential as an accessibility feature, especially for anyone who isn't as visually aware.

It makes sense that Apple wants to expand their arsenal of wearable technology, especially after the recent release of the Apple Vision Pro garnered so much attention. However, cameras may not be the best solution.

Why adding cameras to AirPods could be a bad idea

Personally, I see a few potential problems and limitations this idea could pose, and think the idea of adding cameras to earbuds is at best a waste of money, and at the worst, a potential danger.

It makes sense that Apple wants to expand their arsenal of wearable technology after the Apple Vision Pro release. However, cameras may not be the best solution.

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The limitations of cameras on earbuds

Considering Apple's investigation into adding cameras on earbuds like AirPods, would use low-resolution cameras, it would most likely involve onboard image processing. And since doing so over Bluetooth would be impractical, the possibilities of cameras present in earbuds seem fairly limited. The camera likely won't support photos or live-streaming as it would most likely need a wired connection or wireless connection with a more powerful battery.

Additionally, it seems impractical to implement the kind of technology present in wearables like Ray-Ban's Meta Smart Glasses, which connect using Wi-Fi. Earbuds could theoretically have Wi-Fi connectivity built-in to them, but that would likely increase the bulk and weight of them, significantly decrease battery life, and cost a ton in research and development.

Why adding cameras to AirPods could be a bad idea

With those limitations in mind, it has me questioning how useful the theoretical technology is in practice. Fall detection and workout detection could be implemented using already-existing motion sensors, and the awareness factor is already addressed with the existence of transparency mode.

Why adding cameras to AirPods could be a bad idea

Even though increased visual awareness of a camera would be a nice addition, considering how low-resolution the camera would likely be, with the added caveat that many people's hair or head wear would cover a camera anyway, I don't think it would be incredibly useful for the vast majority of users.

With the added caveat that many people's hair or head wear would cover a camera anyway, I don't think it would be incredibly useful for the vast majority of users.

Cameras could pose a privacy and security problem

There are also privacy concerns to consider with cameras on earbuds. Any company implementing this sort of technology, Apple or otherwise, would obviously state that there are no privacy or security concerns with low-resolution cameras on earbuds. The claim would probably be similar to how Apple states that Face ID scans are "encrypted and protected by the Secure Enclave," the Secure Enclave being a secure subsystem present in the hardware of most new Apple devices, excluding AirPods.

Why adding cameras to AirPods could be a bad idea

But as with all technology, I think it's important to remain skeptical when it comes to privacy and security. There is no such thing as a perfect fail-safe when it comes to protecting your data, and vulnerabilities pop up on a daily basis for pretty much all tech hardware and software. There's already cause for concern when it comes to earbuds having location tracking, like AirPods do, and potentially adding another vector may not be optimal until companies can patch any vulnerabilities.

Why adding cameras to AirPods could be a bad idea

The problem with relying on consumer tech for accessibility

While theoretically, cameras on earbuds could be a great feature for accessibility and enhance your daily routine, I think we're getting into dangerous territory when earbuds can replace vital accessibility technology that is specifically made to assist disabled and elderly people.

I think we're getting into dangerous territory when earbuds can replace vital accessibility technology that is specifically made to assist disabled and elderly people.

Sticking with the example of Apple, AirPods and some Beats earbuds already have the Live Listen feature as a key accessibility feature, which allows people to use specific earbuds as hearing aids. But this feature can't replace the usefulness of medical-grade hearing aids, which are made for the specific purpose of improving your hearing.

Why adding cameras to AirPods could be a bad idea

While it may be cost-effective to have your earbuds double as hearing aids, especially when hearing aids can be exorbitantly expensive, it doesn't feel ethical to create sub-par accessibility tech that will inevitably be used as a replacement for assistive devices.

The same can be said for the use of cameras on earbuds. If you have an elderly relative that you want to be able to help if they fall on their walk, you would be better off relying on a purpose-built emergency alert system like a necklace or bracelet, not a pair of earbuds. AI processing can also make mistakes.

Why adding cameras to AirPods could be a bad idea

For example, what if an earbud falsely detects a person sitting or lying down as a fall? While the potential exists for earbuds to be helpful accessibility devices, cameras and AI may pose too many potential problems to be genuinely helpful.

Why adding cameras to AirPods could be a bad idea

Further questions to consider

Whether Apple moves forward with adding cameras to earbuds or not, I do think it's important that we consider what tech companies have to gain from implementing new features like these. Will more bells and whistles actually be helpful for consumers, or will it just add a new fancy feature to a spec list to justify a higher price tag? Will consumers really get a net benefit, or will tech companies have more personal data to add to their already-stacked arsenal of personal information on every person?

Only time will tell, but I hope that any new earbud features, especially ones geared toward accessibility and health, consider all limitations to maximize possibility.

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