Almost all smartwatches, smartphones and even some sports headphones have had heart-rate sensors for almost a decade, providing the ability to monitor beats-per-minute primarily for sports-use cases. Biometric sensors have come a long way in many consumer electronics products but its adoption in hearables has been muted, with a current lack of support from key vendors. However, with Apple building credibility in the medical space, with fall detection technology and an ECG system available through the Apple Watch, it poses the question as to whether its other fastest-growing wearable devices will follow suit. AirPods, and indeed other True Wireless (TWS) hearables, could utilise advanced biometrics and machine-learning to provide additional medical-use cases beyond music-listening.
Certainly, that’s the vision for Valencell, who at CES in January introduced a new blood pressure sensor system designed to fit into hearable form-factors with limited real estate. Placement of biometrics in the ear has some significant advantages over the wrist-worn alternative. The ear canal is a protected, dark, safe placement at a fixed location with proper tissue contact at a position with the best blood supply. This means biometric sensors here can provide more accurate data not only about cardiovascular functions but also other measurements, such as body temperature, oxygen consumption, blood flow, dietary requirements, swallowing activities, even EEGs (brain activity) and emotion detection. However, it need not be an argument between whether the smartwatch or the earbud is a better alternative. Indeed, many smartphone companies who are driving the True Wireless trend, with a combined market share of 70%, have a portfolio with both. Valencell, amongst others, believes the future is collaboration between the two devices, using AI to switch seamlessly between the best sensor situationally within a phone-free ecosystem.
The potential scale of such a product is huge. Subtle implementation of advanced biometric sensors, combined with machine learning into earbuds much like the devices which are already worn by the masses, provide the opportunity for huge personal, individualised data sets. Deeper and smarter insights into the body means that a hearable device could serve as a preventive health tool, flagging up any deviations to the norm, detecting subtle changes and providing actionable lifestyle advice or even suggesting optimised medical treatment. In critical cases, such as with the recent outbreak of COVID-19, it could contact medical professions or emergency response to set in motion a chain of care. The reactionary approach to healthcare currently adopted by visiting the doctor once or twice a year could be replaced with a much more proactive and continuous approach to healthcare.
Combined with the rapid rise in voice as a user-interface, a healthable enabled with a voice assistant opens a host of opportunities for accessibility and personalisation without the need for a screen. Localisation and broadcasting of information pertinent to the consumer and that location, to better understand the context of a situation through AI, means hearables will be able to offer better advice and suggestions by knowing the user’s behavioural patterns.
However, many technological and social barriers remain before we can consider this idyllic future. Issues surrounding who has access to this data, such as corporations, insurance, security and criminality pose important concerns. Even practically, a hearable lacks real estate, limiting the physical inclusion of sensors, not to mention constrained capabilities of battery life and power. The safety aspects also pose a concern, planting radio-frequency radiation or overheating lithium-ion batteries next to the skull.
The practicalities of consumerising such a product should not be under-estimated; a one-size-fits all approach to a healthable would be unlikely. To get it right, manufacturers will have to experiment with the positioning of such features between either a lifestyle device or a medical-grade product. To an extent, this is already being trialled, with the introduction of the Zenbuds by wearable company Amazfit and Starkey’s Lizio AI. Amazfit’s ‘Sleep buds’ are able to provide useful data on sleep positioning and sleep quality monitoring through an in-ear device. At the other end of the scale, Starkey’s is more of a hearing aid, providing sensors for fall detection, balance and gait sensing for the elderly. The mass-market appeal, accessibility and awareness of the fusion between digital-health hardware and content however is rifer than ever-before, with the evidence of apps such as Calm and Headspace seeing enormous success. The market is well positioned for such a product.
Fundamentally, the near future will provide greater improvements in the technological, regulatory and indeed social environments that may help these innovations come to fruition, in time. The industry has its eyes (and ears) on Apple, as it is a question of when, not if, it decides to introduce biometric sensors in AirPods to complement its current health proposition. Utilising its already huge 54% share of the TWS market, the market for biometric hearables will explode almost overnight, with many competitors who are also playing in the wearable market (Samsung, Google, Huawei, Xiaomi etc.) undoubtably following shortly behind.
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