The wireless headphone and earbud market has exploded in recent years, with consumers eagerly embracing the freedom and convenience of cord-free audio. However, Bluetooth, the technology that makes this wireless functionality possible, has remained largely unchanged since its inception over 20 years ago. That is about to change with the introduction of a new capability called Auracast that has the potential to fundamentally alter how we experience media and entertainment.
What is Auracast and How Does it Work?
Auracast is an exciting new feature of Bluetooth Low Energy (LE) Audio, the latest Bluetooth audio standard released in 2020. With Auracast, Bluetooth devices like smartphones, tablets and computers will be able to broadcast audio to an unlimited number of compatible receiving devices simultaneously within a range of about 100 feet.
This functionality is similar to a radio broadcast, turning the transmitting device into a personal Bluetooth radio station. To access an Auracast broadcast, receiving devices like headphones and speakers will scan for available “stations” and select one from a list. No pairing or special setup is required, opening up possibilities for shared listening experiencesanywhere Auracast is available.
According to the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG), the Auracast audio sharing capability introduces a whole new dimension to Bluetooth that was never possible before. Instead of the traditional one-to-one connection between a single headset and a phone or tablet, Auracast allows one-to-many broadcasting to an unlimited number of receiving devices.
In technical terms, Auracast turns a phone or tablet into a broadcast hub called an Auracast Assistant. The Auracast Assistant streams the audio over Bluetooth to any compatible Auracast receiver in the vicinity. Receiving devices can include headphones, speakers, hearing aids or even other phones and tablets.
Depending on the use case, there are a couple ways to connect to an Auracast broadcast:
- Scan and select an available Auracast from a list
- Scan a QR code associated with a specific Auracast broadcast
- Tap a NFC-enabled device against an Auracast access point terminal
Once connected, Auracast can also transmit metadata about the audio stream, such as song titles, artists and playlists. This opens up numerous possibilities for shared listening that were never possible before over Bluetooth.
Broadcasting Personal Audio Streams
Although Auracast introduces the ability to publicly broadcast audio, its developers envision it being widely used for personal audio sharing between devices. For example, two people could watch a video or listen to music from the same smartphone over Bluetooth headphones or earbuds, without being tethered together.
Parents could broadcast a movie or TV show from a tablet to multiple kids’ wireless headphones in the backseat of a car. Fitness enthusiasts could share playlists from a phone to all of their running partners’ earbuds during training sessions. The opportunities for sharing personal audio streams between small groups are endless with Auracast.
Public Broadcasting Applications
But Auracast’s capabilities extend far beyond personal use cases. The technology has the potential to enable exciting new public broadcasting applications that could change the way we experience:
- In-Flight Entertainment – Airlines could broadcast movies, TV shows and music to passengers’ own headphones and earbuds using Auracast. No more cumbersome wired seatback systems.
- Conferences – Attendees could listen to real-time translations on their personal devices using Auracast, rather than relying on the infrared receivers traditionally supplied at these events.
- Public Transit – Important service updates and next stop announcements could be broadcast over Auracast and received by riders on any compatible device.
- Movie Theaters – Closed captioning and audio description tracks for visually and hearing impaired patrons could be delivered wirelessly.
- Airports – Gate announcements and emergency notifications could be Auracast, improving clarity and availability in multiple languages.
- Live Events – Concerts, shows and stadium events could broadcast commentary and enhanced audio mixes to attendees.
- Assisted Listening – Public places like museums, malls and theaters could make information and announcements accessible to those requiring auditory assistance.
- Gyms – Wireless speakers in workout rooms could all join an Auracast party mode, creating a unified club-like audio experience.
The benefits span across both consumer and professional use cases, with Auracast bringing wireless audio broadcasting to places it was never possible before.
Will Existing Devices Work With Auracast?
Unfortunately backwards compatibility will be limited, as Auracast requires Bluetooth chips and software specifically designed for this capability. Many modern smartphones, tablets, computers and TVs have Bluetooth chipsets that could potentially be upgraded to support Auracast through firmware updates.
However headphones, earbuds and speakers pose more of a challenge. In order to be Auracast-compatible, these devices need appropriate hardware and firmware, which most existing products lack. Lower-cost audio gear without companion apps for firmware upgrades will likely never gain Auracast functionality.
So in most cases, consumers will need to purchase new Auracast-enabled products to take advantage of wireless broadcasting. That said, some hearing aid models with updatable firmware will be able to upgrade to Auracast compatibility. This could be a game-changer for those requiring auditory assistance.
When Will Auracast Products be Available?
The first Auracast devices are just now reaching the market in 2023 and 2024. A number of headphones, earbuds and speakers flaunting Auracast support were on display at the 2024 Consumer Electronics Show. USB transmitters and TV streamers are also becoming available to add Auracast capabilities to existing devices.
On the software side, Auracast receiver apps for iOS and Android have yet to be launched. These will be necessary for phones and tablets to access Auracast broadcasts through scanning and streaming the audio to Bluetooth headphones. Once these apps launch on the major mobile platforms, the Auracast ecosystem will be complete.
What Can Broadcasters and Content-Owners Do About Auracast?
Given its open and broadcast-based nature, there are legitimate concerns around how Auracast could be used to publicly share copyrighted and personal content. Streaming services like Amazon Music currently prohibit rebroadcasting songs outside personal, non-commercial use. Auracast makes this kind of open sharing possible on an unprecedented scale.
However, BluetoothSIG designed Auracast with content provider concerns in mind. They acknowledge that software developers may build in restrictions on sharing copyrighted streams. For example, an Auracast receiver app could limit music and video streaming, while still allowing other use cases like audio books, podcasts and public event broadcasts.
There also appears to be efforts underway to implement digital rights management (DRM) capabilities for Auracast. This would give content owners more control over what can be broadcast publicly and how. Music and video platforms seem reluctant to embrace the technology until DRM questions are addressed.
It remains to be seen how broadcasting rights issues will shape Auracast rollouts and impact its full potential. But given current trends toward wireless audio and hearing assistance, Auracast appears poised to drive the next evolution in the Bluetooth landscape. Like WiFi and 4G before it, Auracast could ultimately change the way we connect and consume media.