Apple’s recent patents go beyond the expected iWatch to track fitness and health data directly from your ears.
Will Apple’s next big thing be a pair of headphones for monitoring your heart rate and tracking your activity, fitness and health?
Apple has patented designs for earphones and headphones that are capable of monitoring a wearer’s movements and vital signs through a series of embedded sensors.
The patent describes both headphones and earphones fitted with accelerometers like those in smartphones for detecting motion, as well as temperature, perspiration and heart-rate sensors for monitoring a user’s activity, fitness and other statistics.
Apple filed the patent in 2007 for a “sports monitoring system for headphones, earbuds and/or headsets”, which was granted on Tuesday, indicating that Apple has been investigating the possibility of integrated health monitors for at least six years.
The patent also details the possibility of using motion detection to activate gestures such as changing track or pausing and playing music through the headphones.
Activity tracking in the ears or on the wrist
Apple’s chief executive, Tim Cook, recently confirmed that promised future “product categories” were still on track saying: “Yes. Absolutely. No Change,” when asked during an earnings call last month, stoking expectations of an Apple smartwatch, which is also expected to have a significant role in health and fitness monitoring.
“We’re working on things you can’t see today. We have zero issue coming up with things that we want to do that we think we can disrupt in a major way,” Cook said. “The challenge is always to focus to the very few that deserve all of our energy.”
In December 2013 Apple reportedly met with senior agents of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the regulatory body charged with overseeing food safety, sales of medication and the approval of medical devices in the US.
The meeting involved Michael O’Reilly, previously the chief medical officer of a medical sensor company called Masimo, who joined Apple last year, as well as Bakul Patel, a senior policy adviser who drafted the FDA’s mobile medical app guidance and plays a role in medical gadget approval.
It is clear that Apple is looking at medical applications for its apps and hardware at the very least. Health and fitness tracking could be one of the primary new focuses for Apple’s next mobile software update. Apple news site 9to5Mac claimed that Apple was developing a new “Healthbook” app to collect and store data on fitness activities, including steps taken, calories burned, and distance walked.
The Healthbook app was said to target medical and health data, tracking a person’s heart rate and blood pressure, as well as other blood-related statistics like glucose levels, something a pair of sensor-packed earphones could link into as well as a smartwatch.
Apple already holds patents for the collection of sensory information, including blood-pressure monitoring, but it is unclear whether that technology is mature enough to build into a smartwatch or earphone-like device.
“The whole sensor field is going to explode,” said Tim Cook in an interview in 2013. “It’s a little all over the place right now. With the arc of time, it will become clearer.”
LG announced its own fitness tracking earphones capable of monitoring the wearer’s heart rate, feeding information to the Korean company’s Lifeband smart wrist-borne fitness tracker. It is unknown what impact this patent award to Apple will have on LG’s efforts.