How Amazon may solve the glaring weakness of noise-canceling headphones

From Edison to Beats by Dre - The history of headphones
From Edison to Beats by Dre - The history of headphones

Headphone wearers may one day have the best of both worlds.

Anyone seeking to tune out the world around them already has access to high-tech headphones capable of muffling the sounds. Noise-canceling headphones cost several hundred dollars, but are a godsend for many commuters and travelers who are tired of the din of everyday life.

Of course, there's a tradeoff -- it can be dangerous to surrender our senses.

Today's headphones are so good that we risk missing out on critical noises, like someone yelling our name, the honk of a car horn or a person's cry for help.

A new patent Amazon received earlier this month offers a solution -- noise-canceling headphones that will allow critical, hand-picked words to be heard by the headphone-wearer.

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For example, a person could program noise-canceling headphones so he or she can hear anyone yelling their name.

"I'm always walking behind a student who is listening to music and their friend is coming out of the library across the quad trying to get their attention -- and they have no idea," said Peter Swendsen, an Oberlin professor of computer music and digital arts.

Headphone sales in the United States will reach $2.2 billion in 2016, according to the Consumer Technology Association.

Noise-canceling headphones work by emitting a sound that cancels out the ambient noise entering a person's ear, so they aren't distracted by it. Amazon's (AMZN) patent describes a computerized system that would listen for certain key phrases, and temporarily pause the noise cancellation when those sounds are heard.

Swendsen said such headphones that allow in handpicked words could being useful for public and personal safety.

"It could save someone 10, 20 seconds of hearing something right away, versus realizing everyone around you is starting to respond and having no idea what is going on," Swendsen said.

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