Apple working on 3D conference calls, patent filing reveals

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Apple working on 3D conference calls, patent filing reveals

Chicago (IL) – Apple may be developing a new feature for the iPhone that would allow users to create an illusion of positional audio within conference calls. The result: Conference calls would much more sound like a real face-to-face communication in a room. Media sharing features pick up a concept originally promoted by Microsoft for its Zune player and create a path for Apple into social networking.

A new patent filing dating back to September 21, 2006 surfaced on the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office website yesterday, providing yet another glimpse at possible future features of Apple’s iPhone and other voice-enabled devices. According to the patent description, a user will be able to assign a virtual position to any participant in a conference call and the handset would then use software tricks to create an illusion of positional audio.  

The document suggests that a graphical interface will help call organizers to create positions in a virtual environment. The software is indicated to render positional audio for each participant according to his virtual position, mix audio from all participants and play the resulting mix through at least two speakers (headset, external speaker set). At least from what we can gather right now, this approach could create a three-dimensional audio scenario.

“The visual indication for at least one of the participants can be assigned to a different one of the visually distinct regions, thereby causing an audio sound associated with the participant to be spatially adapted to originate from a virtual location corresponding to the visually distinct region,” the patent filing reads. The obvious purpose of this technique would be to make it easier for users to distinguish between participants in a conference call.

Apple provides detailed explanation on how the user could use a participant position screen on the device to place each of the remaining participants in a virtual environment: “The participant position screen is displayed such that a user of the portable communication device can manipulate or otherwise cause one or more of the positions associated with the participants to be changed. In doing so, the user, in one embodiment, can cause the physical movement of a representation of a participant on the participant position screen.”

In other words, if there are four people participating in a conference call, there would be a graphical user interface with four user icons in a virtual room. You would then place your finger on the touch screen and drag participants to whatever locations you wanted and the audio data created from each participant will “position” accordingly through your headset or stereo speakers.

This approach could, at least in theory, complicate conference call much more than it would simplify them. Imagine calls with 20 participants and you would have to create their position at the beginning of the call. The patent filing addresses such concerns by covering automatic positioning: A device could calculate a default position for each participant based on participant’s real-world geographical position (obtained by through triangulation or a GPS hardware module). Additionally, the device could set the default position for each participant based on the order participants joined a conference call or use a pre-set positioning configured by the user.

The document also discusses how two audio sources could be blended together. One audio source could be music playback and the other could be mixed audio of all the participants in a conference call. The blending feature is indicated to be based on a slider control with the conference call on one end and audio playback on another. “For example, the position of the slider can represent a mixture of the audio playback output and the voice call output with each amplified similarly so that the mixture is approximately 50% audio,” Apple wrote in the filing. The audio playback source can also be applied to a virtual conference call environment.

There are a few other interesting capabilities mentioned within the patent, some of which address social networking and some that may not really enhance the usefulness of business conference calls: According to Apple, “all the participants on an iPhone conference call could also share media items such as songs, albums, audiobooks, playlists, movies, music videos, photos, computer games, podcasts, audio and/or video presentations, news reports, and sports updates.” So, if you are already distracted in conference calls today, guess what this feature will do to you?

Could this feature debut with the iPhone 2.0 update? We don’t know. But it certainly reaffirms our opinion that VoIP and videoconferencing will be the iPhone’s next killer applications.