Headphone wearers may one day have the best of both worlds.
Anyone seeking to tune out the world around them already has access to high-tech headphones capable of muffling the sounds. Noise-canceling headphones cost several hundred dollars, but are a godsend for many commuters and travelers who are tired of the din of everyday life.
Of course, there's a tradeoff -- it can be dangerous to surrender our senses.
Today's headphones are so good that we risk missing out on critical noises, like someone yelling our name, the honk of a car horn or a person's cry for help.
A new patent Amazon received earlier this month offers a solution -- noise-canceling headphones that will allow critical, hand-picked words to be heard by the headphone-wearer.
For example, a person could program noise-canceling headphones so he or she can hear anyone yelling their name.
"I'm always walking behind a student who is listening to music and their friend is coming out of the library across the quad trying to get their attention -- and they have no idea," said Peter Swendsen, an Oberlin professor of computer music and digital arts.
Headphone sales in the United States will reach $2.2 billion in 2016, according to the Consumer Technology Association.
Noise-canceling headphones work by emitting a sound that cancels out the ambient noise entering a person's ear, so they aren't distracted by it. Amazon's (AMZN, Tech30) patent describes a computerized system that would listen for certain key phrases, and temporarily pause the noise cancellation when those sounds are heard, CNN reports.