Apple EarPods a flawed design? An analysis with in-ear 3D scans.

I do research at the Body Scan Lab at Georgia Institute of Technology. A part of that is using 3D scanning as a tool to help me understand the external surface geometry of the human body and analyze how it changes between different people and also how it changes under different activities. This helps me understand the body surface better and consequently, design products that also fit the human body better. I’m passionate about understanding how products are designed to fit us.

This article is about our ears. The main purpose is to share an interesting insight from my research, hoping it’ll spark new methods and thought processes to design products.

When I started to do research about the ears, I learned that ears are as unique as our fingerprints. This means no 2 ears are the same, which wasn’t a huge surprise. Below is an image showing ears of 3 different people.

The canal internal to the head, past the outer ear (highlighted in red) varies drastically in shape among people. This was the actual surprise.

Why you ask? Great question. Imagine designing a sock; all feet usually have the same overall outline, with clearly identifiable features like the arch, toes, a heel, ankle etc.

You can now use this knowledge of the general shape of the foot to design socks in one shape and it’d fit most people. Except for the size of the sock, the overall design remains the same. Now, imagine if each person’s foot was different, different to such an extent that some have no ankles, some have no arch, some have no toes or only a few toes etc. In such a case, one sock design wouldn’t fit many people. This is the challenge with designing in-ear devices.

Even the shape of the canal opening is different for each person. As in the picture, just between 3 people, there are so many differences. What I’ve been trying to do is to find similarities extending across all people so I can use those as guidelines to design products that fit almost everyone’s ears better. It was when doing this that I realized that Apple’s new earphones are actually, objectively, a bad and inefficient design.

I was never a fan of their new EarPods; they were uncomfortable and they hurt my ear after a while. I used to think my ear’s shape was the culprit but it turns out, Apple’s design has a flaw. Read on to find out what…

When analyzing the canal’s shape, I noticed that all ears had this feature in common: the canal takes a turn at the marked point in all ears. Now, when an apple earphone is placed in the ear in the regular position, the output opening of the earbud directly faces the canal’s wall like in the image below.

This means the sound isn’t directed into the canal but is expected to bounce around and reach the eardrum. The sharper output edges also touch the ear canal wall in some cases causing discomfort.

However, take a look at these earphones from another company, LeEco.

Did you notice their earbuds have a small curve at the tip? Before analyzing the canal shape, I thought this curve was just a design detail and didn’t offer significant usability gains. But now, it is clear that the curve was intended to direct sound directly into the canal and also prevent contact of the sharp edge with the canal walls. This is more efficient and comfortable.

This is a great example of how new technology like 3D scanning can help us design products that fit our bodies better. By offering us a view of the body’s surface like never before, it empowers researchers and designers alike to pay even closer attention to the minor details, ensuring our end users are offered only the best of product experiences.

This was the insight I wanted to share through this article. I personally love doing these analyses as they help me make educated design decisions. If you’d like to learn more about this project or other ones I’m working on, or have any questions, feel free to reach out at asak92@gmail.com.

Cheers!

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