Apple's future AirPods could include a life-saving feature that would warn pedestrians and cyclists about road hazards ahead.
The technology giant has filed a patent for an earphone system that automatically detects dangers nearby, such as fast-moving cars, and lowers the volume of music to alert the user.
By connecting to a user's smartphone or smartwatch, it could use GPS to pinpoint an exact location. It could also use the AirPod's built-in accelerometer to detect speed.
In one example "the sensing device may determine that the wearable audio device engages both ears and that the user is at a side of, or on, a road," the patent reads.
It could then turn off the music in one of the earbuds closest to the road to allow the wearer to better hear traffic.
The system could also play warning message or instructions in the event of immediate danger.
The patent filing said: “Audio output may be paused or lowered while a warning message plays… reminding the rider to pay attention to traffic on the road.”
Apple’s more expensive AirPods Pro already use “active” noise cancelling technology. This means they can adjust themselves to sounds around the user.
Patent filings do not necessarily mean the ideas will end up in the final product. But the technology described in the patent could make its future headphones much smarter.
Previous research has been done to solve the problem of pedestrians glued to their smartphone screens while crossing the road without stopping to look for traffic.
Researchers at Columbia University last year created headphones to warn “smartphone zombies” of nearby dangers by deciphering hundreds of road noises.
The headphones have miniature microphones embedded within to detect the sound of approaching vehicles.
A processor works out which sounds pose a threat and, if the hazard is close enough, it sends an audio alert to jolt the pedestrian into action.
According to one US study quoted in the British Medical Journal, deaths of pedestrians who were wearing headphones tripled between 2004 and 2011, with 116 in total over the period. In the UK, there were more than 450 pedestrian deaths in all circumstances in 2018, according to government figures.
A survey from technology firm Audio Analytic found a quarter of adults had put themselves in danger by stepping out into the road while wearing headphones.