Is the Shuffle headphone Chip a MEMS microphone?

isitmems.jpg The tiny chip inside the new iPod Shuffle's headphone control module turned out to be for "transmission" rather than hardware authentication. Leaving it at that, however, ignores Apple's capacity for clever design. Perhaps it has a trick up its sleeve, one that would add a useful feature to the control-less new iPod Shuffle: voice control. "Transmission" is a curious turn of phrase, after all, which doesn't quite fit the idea of issuing simple playback commands. As the Shuffle doesn't have on-player controls, that's a necessary function–but such controls could be accomplished without a microchip by using simple analog techniques. The easy assumption, then, is that the chip is a contrivance designed to impose a licensing "tax" on manufacturers who want access to the Apple store. To some ears, however, the meaning of "transmission" is even more obvious–with no need for conspiracy theories. One anon reader writes in:
Why the mystery on this? ... To implement voice recognition for a few commands, playlists, etc., you don't need superlative fidelity. ... It might be a locked feature for now, like BlueTooth on the iPod Touch...but it's there for a software upgrade, perhaps to be used with other "iProds."
Note the physical similarity between Apple's new chip and MEMS microphones developed and sold by Akustica and others. In size, surface texture and design, they're almost identical:
Microelectromechanical systems are devices with components that approach the nanotechnological scale. Audio sensors integrated into the surface of tiny chips is one of the first applications. According to EEtimes, "most analysts agree that Akustica and other MEMS microphones with digital outputs will be integrated not only into PCs and PDAs, but also into most cell phones," by 2010. On the 1mm-square die of a MEMS controller's chip is all the circuitry required to produce digital PCM audio output. Akustica's website, in fact, pitches just the sort of headset-based applications at hand. It imagines Bluetooth headsets. Perhaps Apple imagines something more unusual – at least with devices with enough power to process the commands. Update: Jeremy Horwitz of iLounge, which originally reported the chip's existence, corrects my arrant speculations:
Hey, just FYI - the post re: the MEMS microphone is a bunch off. ... Yes, the chip + microphone set Apple is selling to developers contains a MEMS microphone interface and button decoder (that's the special chip) and a MEMS microphone. However, in the shuffle implementation, the microphone is intentionally left completely off the headset, even though Apple makes an almost identical mic-equipped version of the headset for other iPods. The absence of the mic on the shuffle headset, combined with the fact that you'd need to trigger the voice command by... wait for it... hitting a button on the shuffle, then talking, then possibly confirming -- all of which takes roughly much effort as changing tracks yourself with button presses -- makes voice command on the shuffle highly unrealistic. ... The same thing happened with the $50 iPod video cables, where a few readers insisted (in the absence of any official explanation from Apple) that the change was going to enable some new awesome iPod or iTunes functionality, which never actually happened. It was ultimately just about locking down video and collecting licensing fees for more accessories.

About Rob Beschizza

Rob Beschizza is the Managing Editor of Boing Boing. He's @beschizza on Twitter and can be found on Facebook too. Try your luck at  
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11 Responses to Is the Shuffle headphone Chip a MEMS microphone?

  1. GadgetGav says:

    0 for 2 Rob. When are you going to give it up with the shuffle chip stories?
    Funny how there’s not “RAMPANT AND IGNORANT SPECULATION” as part of the headline, just one of those clever question marks you like to use.
    And ‘arrant’..? Is that really what you mean? The Middle English term for complete, total, absolute, downright, outright, thorough..?

    Is it possible to get a BBGadgets feed – Rob Beschizza, or am I just going to have to delete the bookmark?

  2. nixiebunny says:

    Sorry, but that Apple chip looks very much like a standard CSP packaged silicon chip with no microphone attributes. There was one photo last week that showed one that had been chewed on; it looked like standard silicon material.

    I’d be happy to poke around in one of these things with an oscilloscope, but I don’t want to buy one since I think it’s a dumb product that isn’t compatible with my bike boombox gizmo which is the main thing I’d use it for.

  3. novelgazer says:

    I think we just so desperately want these new features to be cool, and all we really got was a credit-card style phone tree.

  4. Chrs says:

    “In size, surface texture, and design, they’re almost identical.”

    I remain hopeful, but a remarkable number of MEMS devices look like this. The similar number of contacts is a good sign, though!

  5. Chrs says:

    Ah, looks like I misread the captioning. The microphone is the four-contact, and the Apple chip is the six-contact. Someone’s just going to have to poke at it and find out.

  6. Rob Beschizza says:

    I know — this is just RAMPANT AND IGNORANT SPECULATION and I’m not remotely afraid to admit it.


    Nooooo! Not Apple guts again!1!

  8. morcheeba says:

    I agree with nixiebunny. MEMS microphones all have tiny holes for the sound to come in; the apple chip has a dot for pin 1, but it doesn’t look like a hole.

  9. catman says:

    Didn’t some ‘after-market’ guy claim they had an option to buy the mystery chip bundled with a mike? Could it be both? Neither? Just solid plastic put in there to distract everyone…

  10. catman says:

    Could it be a combo signal conditioner/ port-less contact mike…

  11. strider_mt2k says:

    I think it’s an anxiety generator.

    -and an efficient one at that.

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