Researchers at the University of Washington have created a new pair of AI headphones that can focus on one person’s voice even in the middle of a large, noisy crowd. This new tech is called a “target sound hearing” system, and during 21 separate tests, the subjects wearing the headphones noticed significant improvement compared to regular headphones in loud environments.

These headphones are still just a prototype, but so far, users have rated the voice clarity as being twice as high as that of regular headphones in noisy environments. What’s even more impressive about the headphones is that they can work just by having the wearer look at the other person just once.

The tech at the foundation of these AI headphones builds off other features we’re already seeing in headphones—like the conversation-sensing tech in Apple’s latest AirPods Pro. While I love my AirPods Pro 2, the conversation detection is extremely spotty and doesn’t take a targeted approach, so it even interrupts my music when I’m just trying to sing along.

With this targeted speech-hearing system, though, that might be an issue of the past. Not to mention the good that a capability like this could do for hearing aid systems, especially as those continue to improve. The researchers highlighted their findings at the ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems earlier this month, and have made the code for the proof-of-concept device available for others to build on, too.


The system is all made possible thanks to an onboard computer, which receives signals from the headphones, allowing the machine-learning software on the computer to pick up the patterns of the desired speaker’s voice. This allows the AI headphones to isolate the noise and let it through while still blocking out everything else.

Of course, the system isn’t yet commercially available. But if it really can isolate noise and let certain sounds through much better than current headphones do, it will only be a matter of time before we see the tech appearing as a feature in newer headphones—maybe even some new AirPods.

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