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Apple’s next big thing? AirPods with frickin cameras

We expect most of Apple’s AirPods headphones to get updated in fall 2024, with Cupertino unveiling its 4th-gen AirPods and 2nd-gen AirPods Max, along with the possibly launch of an entirely new AirPods Lite model. But a new report raises interesting questions about where the range will go beyond that: According to the highly respected analyst Ming-Chi Kuo, Apple is working on a surprising hardware upgrade for its popular earbuds—cameras.

Cameras might seem like a counterintuitive addition to the headphones’ hardware capabilities: How could a user possibly take a photo using their AirPods with any kind of accuracy? (Not just because of the awkward position in the ear; there’s also no screen to use as a viewfinder if you hold the earbud in your hand.) But this camera isn’t for photography. The module will house an IR (infrared) camera and is much closer in function to the Face ID module on an iPhone. Kuo points out, however, that it will be similar to the iPhone’s Face ID receiver, not the transmitter which projects infrared light on to target objects, so it won’t be capable of accurately modeling the world in 3D or scanning faces for biometric unlocks.

Rather, this upgrade is intended to enable simpler environmental imaging, likely for one principle purpose: “in-air gesture control to enhance human-device interaction.” So instead of being limited to swipes and taps on the AirPods’ body, the user will be able to make gestures in front of themselves and the AirPods will spot these and action the relevant command.

If that sounds like the way Vision Pro is controlled, this is no coincidence; Kuo also believes the AirPods will be upgraded to make them better companions for Apple’s augmented-reality headset. “For example,” he writes, “when a user is watching a video with Vision Pro and wearing [these] new AirPods, if users turn their heads to look in a specific direction, the sound source in that direction can be emphasized to enhance the spatial audio/computing experience.”

What Kuo doesn’t specify is which models of AirPods are going to get these new capabilities. But the best bet is that they will land on AirPods Pro first, as part of Apple’s ongoing effort to encourage customers to spend more on its higher-end products. The camera-equipped AirPods will arrive by 2026, Kuo claims, which is about the time we can expect a second-gen Vision Pro.

For all the latest news and rumors concerning Apple’s headphone range, check out our regularly updated new AirPods superguide. And if you can’t wait until the fall, pick up a bargain on the current range with our roundup of the best AirPods deals.