Apple’s new patent filings describe a system for deriving biometrics using embedded biometric sensors on the AirPods (Earbuds). Patent number 10856068 was recently approved.
According to Apple, requiring a user to place a sensor in direct contact with the skin to track these types of biometric data can be overly burdensome, making the adoption of biometric tracking more difficult. Consequently, mechanisms for unobtrusively measuring biometric parameters are highly desirable.
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Adding sensors to Airpods and earbuds makes sense.
One way to make the incorporation of biometric sensors into a user’s everyday life more palatable is to integrate the sensors with a type of device that the user already utilizes.
Because the earbud portion of the earphones sits at least partially within the ear canal of a user during use, an exterior surface of the earbud contacts various portions of the ear to keep it positioned within the ear of a user.
In this design, at least one of the biometric sensors is configured to be pressed up against a portion of the tragus for making biometric measurements.
According to the patent, a biometric sensor could be used to record a user’s biometric parameters using a photoplethysmogram (PPG) sensor that measures biometric parameters by shining light and then measuring the reflectivity of that light off the skin.
Variations in the reflectivity can be used to characterize the blood’s profusion through the skin of a user, much like how the optical sensors on the Apple Watch work today.
What biometrics can this new design measure?
By capturing waveforms associated with the cycling profusion of blood to the skin, multiple biometric parameters can be collected, including, for example, heart rate, blood volume, and respiratory rate.
By using LEDs that emit different wavelengths of light additional data can be gathered, such as, for example, VO2 max (i.e., the maximal rate of oxygen absorption by the body).
A pulse oximeter in the area of the tragus is believed to be particularly accurate.
The electrodes on the earbuds can be configured to measure the galvanic skin response (GSR). A GSR can help determine the amount of stress being experienced by the user at any given moment in time.
Another use of this design will lend itself well for measuring electrocardiogram (EKG) data or impedance cardiography (ICG) related data.
This is not the first of the Apple patents to describe tracking biometric signals using earbuds.
As Apple’s AirPods become more and more popular, the company explores various ways to use the AirPods as a key device for facilitating health and wellness initiatives.
With a new AirPod design expected in 2021 (AirPods 3), it will be interesting to see if and how Apple incorporates Biometric measurement systems into its AirPods.