Apple was recently awarded a patent for manufacturing a cylindrical device that may include speaker and microphone arrays. Patent number 9,651,999 contains a clause that states:
“9. The electronic device defined in claim 1 wherein the electrical component comprises a component selected from the group consisting of: a light source, a light detector, a speaker, and a sensor.”
A statement in the Detailed Description of the patent offers more insight into potential intended uses of the device.
“In some devices, it may be desirable to mount multiple components in proximity to each other. For example… speakers may be mounted in an array to form a phased speaker array or to provide enhanced output levels, microphones may be mounted in an array to gather audio information from multiple directions…”
Does the new patent hint at an Apple Siri smart speaker to challenge Amazon Echo and Google Home? Apple Insider’s Mikey Campbell thinks so:
While the IP appears to cover existing products like the Mac Pro, embodiments contained within are more suitable to smaller, sealed devices like a rumored “Siri speaker” thought to debut as soon as next month.
You Had Me at Microphone Array
This patent may not be related to a smart speaker but the presence of microphones “mounted in an array to gather audio information from multiple directions,” is precisely what is embodied in the Amazon Echo. Most people focus on the Alexa software, but the hardware innovations around microphone technology were critical in delivering the well-received user experience. Would a Mac Pro need omni-directional microphone capabilities when a user it typically in front of it? Likely not.
Will We See a Siri Smart Speaker This Year? Yes.
The patent doesn’t mean Apple is definitely going to build a smart speaker and launch it this year. However, other recent leaks and announcements point in that direction. Voicebot revealed earlier this month that Economic Daily News had confirmed Inventec would would be building smart speakers for Apple. Shortly before that, Apple leak promoter Sonny Dickson reported that Apple was finishing the design for the Amazon Echo competitor and even discussed how it looks. Before that another Apple patent was awarded that indicated a smart speaker might be part of an Apple ecosystem of products responding to a user voice request.
The timing is also important. The patent was filed in May 2015 and awarded this month. That patent filing date is just a few months after the launch of the Amazon Echo and it means Apple has been working on this for over two years. It is enough time to bring new hardware to market and likely was sufficient time to upgrade the Siri software to accommodate conversational interaction. Expect to hear about this at Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference in June with a product release date in the early fall.