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Apple seeks patent for 'ear presence' sensors in time for Beats buy

The technology is designed to determine whether a person's ear is in the vicinity of the earbuds or headphones to play audio.

Beats headphones. Sarah Tew/CNET

Apple has filed for a patent application on sensors, attached to earbuds and headphones, that could detect the presence of an ear and play audio only when needed.

The application, published Thursday by the US Patent and Trademark Office, describes a method by which Apple earbuds would use a wide range of sensors, including temperature, pressure, capacitive, and acoustics to determine whether a person's head or ear is in range to hear audio.

According to the application titled "Electronic Devices and Accessories with Media Streaming Control Features," the idea is to take out the user interaction required to stop playing audio in its current form. Users click the pause button on their audio player and remove their earbuds or headphones. With help from the "ear presence" sensors, whenever the audio technology is removed from the ear or head region, Apple's technology could do the pausing for you.

The technology in the patent application, which might or might not make its way to an Apple product, is all the more relevant in the wake of Apple's announcement on Wednesday that it has acquired Beats Electronics for $3 billion. The acquisition gives Apple control over a brand widely seen as delivering high-quality headphones that maximize the "cool" factor.

It's unlikely, given the long-term nature of patent applications, that Apple filed it with a Beats acquisition in mind. Apple filed the application in November 2012. Still, the coincidental publishing of it makes it all the more relevant for the company's plans. Currently, audio devices simply take output and feed it into the user's ears. Whether it's Apple's own earbuds or Beats headphones, the sensor technology could be bundled and add extra functionality.

The addition of more functionality could be a key component in Apple's plans. After announcing its deal with Beats on Wednesday, Apple CEO Tim Cook said that the purchase reflects what the companies believe they "can produce for the future." Cook also said he wants to work with Beats "to create the most innovative music products and services in the world."

Apple shares are up $6.16, or 1 percent, to $630.17 in early trading on Thursday.

(Via Patently Apple)