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Apple’s newest frontier is audio—and at WWDC, it was everywhere

From FaceTime to AirPods, many of the features that Apple unveiled at its developers keynote relate to sound—and not just music.

Apple’s newest frontier is audio—and at WWDC, it was everywhere
[Screenshot: Apple]
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Apple has been talking a lot about audio lately, and continued doing so during its Worldwide Developers Conference keynote on Monday.

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The company announced in May that it would release “lossless,” or uncompressed, versions of its entire Apple Music catalog, as well as versions of thousands of the songs in “Spatial Audio,” or audio that’s mixed to sound three-dimensional, like theater audio.

Apple is so confident in the Spatial Audio experience that it’s already expanding the new feature from music into other parts of its ecosystem.

For instance, Spatial Audio will come to Apple TV this fall, the company said Monday. So if you’re watching an Apple TV movie wearing AirPods or AirPod Max Bluetooth headphones you might hear sounds or voices coming from places around, above, and behind you. The addition of Spatial Audio to movie viewing seems natural because the feature is based on Dolby Atmos cinema audio technology.

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[Screenshot: Apple]
Apple says it’s also brought the Spatial Audio experience to FaceTime, the videoconferencing service whose major upgrade for 2021 was, to me, the highlight of the WWDC keynote. During FaceTime calls on iPhones, iPads, and Macs, Spatial Audio will make the voice of a person you’re talking to sound as if it’s coming from the place where that person appears on the screen. It does the same thing when multiple people are on a call.

FaceTime can also now analyze and then suppress background noise—such as street sounds or a vacuum cleaner—during a conference call, while preserving the participants’ voices. If it works as well as it did during the keynote, it’s a real audio engineering feat.

[Screenshot: Apple]
AirPods are getting some new audio tricks too.

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In a new feature for mildly hearing impaired people called Conversation Boost, the AirPods can home in on the voice of a person standing near the user and amplify it. The technology can also shut out ambient noise that may get in the way; users can adjust the amount of ambient noise they want to hear. The software can then control how much sound (picked up by the tiny microphones in the AirPods) is allowed into the user’s ear.

Apple is also embracing audio as a way of getting notifications or other timely information to the user. It’s already possible to tell Siri to read text messages from certain people into your ear; now Apple is expanding that function to include notifications such as when your Uber ride has arrived. The read-aloud notifications can also be location based, so you might suddenly hear your shopping list read into your ear when you visit the grocery store.

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Music has always been a big part of Apple’s culture. But Monday’s announcements suggest that the company wants to push audio much further than the one category. Our ears and voices are an important means of interfacing with our personal technology.

About the author

Fast Company Senior Writer Mark Sullivan covers emerging technology, politics, artificial intelligence, large tech companies, and misinformation. An award-winning San Francisco-based journalist, Sullivan's work has appeared in Wired, Al Jazeera, CNN, ABC News, CNET, and many others.

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