Microsoft Research is pushing the boundaries of headphone technology in an effort to elevate everyday digital interactions. In a research paper published on July 12, 2023, titled “Beyond Audio: Towards a Design Space of Headphones as a Site for Interaction and Sensing,” Payod Panda, a Design Engineering Researcher at Microsoft, envisions headphones as devices far surpassing their traditional audio-based functionalities. This research received the Best Paper Award at the ACM Designing Interactive Systems (DIS) 2023, a conference dedicated to the advancement of user-centered system design.

Headphones are one of the most commonly used wearable technologies today. Yet their potential remains largely untapped, confined to the realm of audio inputs and outputs. Microsoft Research’s study conceptualizes an expansion of headphones’ capabilities, integrating existing sensors with additional ones to enable a wide variety of experiences extending beyond traditional audio control.

The sensors employed include microphones, proximity sensors, motion sensors, inertial measurement units (IMUs), and LiDARs. Given the positioning of headphones on the head, these sensors can detect a wide array of interactions such as head movements, body postures, and hand gestures. The ultimate goal is to create a context-aware device, enabling users to engage in more intuitive and immersive interactions with their digital environment, beyond traditional button-based controls.

The paper delves into several potential scenarios for sensor-enhanced headphones. For example, imagine a person in a video call suddenly interrupted by a colleague. The context-aware headphones could detect the user’s shift in attention and automatically blur the video feed and mute the microphone, thereby protecting the user’s privacy and subtly indicating to others that the user is engaged elsewhere. Similarly, in a multi-person video call scenario, the headphones could direct the user’s speech to the person they are looking at, providing a more targeted and efficient conversation.

DIS 2023 - Figure 4: Two videos side-by-side showing a headphone wearer among a multitude of devices controlling which screen is shared in a video call. The video on the left shows an over-the-shoulder view of a person interacting with three screens—a monitor, a laptop, and a tablet—while wearing headphones. A video call is in progress on the laptop, and the wearer is giving a presentation, which appears as a slide on the attached monitor. As the wearer turns from the laptop screen to the monitor, the presentation slide appears on the shared laptop screen. The video on the right shows an over-the-shoulder view of the person interacting with three screens—a monitor, a laptop, and a tablet—while wearing headphones. We see the wearer looking at the monitor with a presentation slide, which is mirrored on the laptop screen. He then turns from the monitor to the tablet, which has a drawing app open. As he does this, the drawing app appears on the shared laptop screen. The wearer uses a pen to draw on the tablet, and this is mirrored on the laptop. Finally, the wearer looks up from the tablet to the laptop, and the laptop screen switches to the video call view with the participants’ videos.

In addition to these communication enhancements, the paper explores the use of socially recognizable gestures for audio-visual control. For example, users could interact with media by cupping their ear towards the audio source to increase the volume while simultaneously reducing ambient noise. These gestures, already ingrained in social contexts, could also serve as non-verbal communication signals.

The researchers also demonstrate the use of embodied interactions, where the wearer’s body movements animate a digital representation of themselves, such as an avatar in a video call. This could extend to gameplay, where users’ body movements could control their game character, adding another level of immersion to the gaming experience.

To create a framework for the future design of interactive headphones, the research team defined a design space based on two concepts: the type of input gesture and the context of the action. Input gestures were classified into touch-based gestures, mid-air gestures, and head orientation. The context was segmented into four categories: context-free actions, context defined by the application, context defined by the wearer’s body, and context defined by the wearer’s environment.

This pioneering exploration with sensor-enhanced headphones hints at a future where context-aware wearable technology empowers users in exciting new ways.

Read more about the research at Microsoft here.