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Rutgers engineers invent tool to convert regular headphones into smart ones

HeadFi, a new innovation created by Rutgers engineers, allows individuals to turn their traditional headphones into "smart" ones through the use of a plug-in adapter rather than having to purchase new headphones. – Photo by Rutgers.edu

Rutgers engineers have invented a way to turn “dumb” headphones into smart ones that can identify users and monitor heart rates, among other functions, according to a press release.

The invention HeadFi is based on a small plug-in headphone adapter that can be connected to headphones and a pairing device, such as a smartphone or computer, to convert regular headphones into technologically advanced ones, said Xiaoran Fan, a recent Rutgers doctoral graduate and the primary inventor. Regular headphones lack sensors and therefore can only play music, he said.

“A regular headphone is just a transducer that converts the electric signal, which is music, to a mechanical signal, which is a sound wave, so that you can hear the sounds,” Fan said.

This same principle, he said, can be reversed so that heartbeats, a type of mechanical signal, can be captured by the headphone driver.

HeadFi can identify users by sending a signal to the wearer’s ear canal and collecting the unique echoes back, Fan said. This enables the headphones to differentiate between people without the need for facial recognition, which some people may find invasive.

Fan said since headphones are so prevalent in people’s lives, it is much more beneficial to convert their regular headphones into smart ones through HeadFi instead of buying smart headphones. 

“We believe the market is huge, because … nowadays everyone has one or two headphones,” he said. “(With HeadFi), you can pick up any headphone and plug it into a cell phone and enjoy those smart applications.”

HeadFi does not require redesigning headphone hardware or adding extra sensors, which add cost and management complications while also decreasing headphone lifespan, Fan said.

He said he came up with the idea for the invention while his research advisor Richard Howard, co-primary inventor and research professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, contributed to its development, as well as individuals from Microsoft, Alibaba Group and other universities.

A Rutgers-led paper on HeadFi will be formally released in October at MobiCom 2021, an international conference on mobile computing and networking, according to the release.

The patent for the invention is pending, Fan said. The team is beginning negotiations with headphone and headset manufacturers and planning to optimize the product so that it is purely signal-collecting software that does not need hardware components. Fan anticipates HeadFi will be available for purchase in two to three years.

Since the HeadFi adapter is simply a platform to enable regular headphones to become smart, the theoretical uses for it are numerous, Fan said. Beyond the current functions of user identification, heart rate monitoring, voice communication and virtual touchscreen, he said the team hopes to look into other applications such as footstep counting and respiration monitoring.

“I believe that there are (many) more applications that we can do from this platform,” Fan said. “That’s my vision for this.”

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