AirPods as augmented-reality wearable computer

[This post from the excellent blog highlights insights from a Real Life magazine story about how Apple’s AirPod wireless earphones represent a type of augmented reality, expressing “a more complete embrace of our simultaneous existence in physical and digital space,” with concerning implications for the public sphere. Extended excerpts of the Real Life story follow below. –Matthew]

[Image: Potsdamer Plaz (2017) by Diane Meyer. Hand sewn archival ink jet print. Courtesy the artist. Source: Real Life.]

AirPods, an Augmented-Reality Wearable Computer

Posted by Jason Kottke
September 19, 2019

For Real Life magazine, Drew Austin writes about wireless headphones and their potential effect on the public sphere if many people start wearing them. The bit that particularly caught my eye was the subtitle of the piece:

Wireless headphones are augmented reality devices.

And further down the page:

Much as phones have enabled and concretized the always-on nature of everyday life, introducing the constant interpenetration of physical and digital space to individual experience, wireless earbuds facilitate a deeper integration, an “always in” existence that we need never interrupt by looking down at a screen. Their aural interface means we don’t have to awkwardly switch attention back and forth between IRL and a screen as though the two are starkly separated. Instead, we can seem to occupy both seamlessly, an experience that other augmented-reality devices, like Google Glass, have promised with varying degrees of success.

I bought some AirPods several months ago thinking I was getting wireless headphones, but very quickly realized they were actually an augmented-reality wearable computer. In my media diet post from May, I called them “the first real VR/AR device that feels seamless”. Like regular wired earbuds or even over-the-ear Bluetooth headphones, AirPods provide an audio track layered over the real world, but they’re so light and let just the right amount of ambient sound in that you barely notice you’re wearing them — it just sounds like whatever you’re listening to is playing in your head, automagically. It feels, at least to me, like a totally different and far more immersive experience. Wearable computing still seems like a futuristic thing a few years away, but with AirPods and the Apple Watch, it’s solidly here right now.

[snip to end]

[Excerpts from Real Life story]

Always In

Wireless headphones are augmented reality devices

Drew Austin
June 03, 2019


We carry phones for the majority of our waking lives, touching them more than 2,600 times a day and treating them with a fondness rarely afforded to other objects. Once a discrete tool, the phone has become an appendage; we feel its absence, sometimes painfully, when separated from it. This can be partly attributed to Apple’s iPhone design, which made the smartphone into an elegant and smooth object, something to covet and obsessively handle. With AirPods, Apple hopes to replicate that effect, producing another minimalist device so intimately responsive that it feels like a part of us.


Headphones have traditionally indicated their wearers’ detachment from their physical surroundings. Since the Walkman era, people have used them to override the sounds of their immediate environment and withdraw into a private sonic universe free of unwanted disturbances. They have also served to shield wearers from unwanted advances in public or from distracting conversations at work. In such cases, the more noise the headphones can cancel, the better.

AirPods foster a different approach to detachment: Rather than mute the surrounding world altogether, they visually signal the wearer’s choice to perpetually relegate the immediate environment to the background. The white earbuds create what Kantrowitz calls the AirPod Barrier, a soft but recognizable obstacle to interpersonal interaction not unlike that of phone usage. While staring at a phone suggests that attitude indirectly, AirPods formalize it, expressing potential distractedness in a more sustained and effortless manner. You don’t have to look down at a screen to convey that your mind might be elsewhere — that you are dividing your attention between your physical surroundings and other kinds of interactions, hearing other voices. AirPods efficiently communicate your refusal to pretend to be “fully present.” AirPods, then, express a more complete embrace of our simultaneous existence in physical and digital space, taking for granted that we’re frequently splitting our mental energy between the two.


AirPods’ emergent use pattern thus far has been disengagement from one’s environment — listening to music while interacting with service staff or maintaining a phone call while working out — rather than data-enhanced immersion in it. But as more people perpetually wear wireless earbuds, they could become the basis for a platform for a multitude of audio apps, as venture capitalist Jordan Cooper describes here. Always-available two-way voice communication channels not only make existing iPhone features like Siri and Voice Control much easier to use frequently but also create the possibility of vocal social media networks, ongoing group conversations among distant friends, interactive music and podcast listening, and sound-based augmented reality games.


[We] might ask what purpose the public square serves, and whether the technology we’re using estranges us from it or further immerses us in it. Public space in the physical world can be a source of a sense of freedom and serendipity, a place where self-interest can be subordinated to other social interests. Digital tools can improve our ability to use that space and connect with one another more effectively within it. But if those same tools instead re-create platforms oriented toward atomizing individuals within those spaces, we risk impoverishing something vital, producing a public square full of people ignoring one another, doing their best to be nowhere.


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