Earbuds: The wearable med device of the future? Apple, Intel think so

Intel smart earbuds reference design using PerformTek biosensors--Courtesy of Intel

Several companies are developing wearable biosensors in the form of wristbands, but the co-founder of biosensing technology company Valencell says the ear is the best to place collect vital signs, and giants Intel ($INTC) and Apple ($AAPL) have earbud ambitions as well.

The chief benefit of the ear as opposed to the wrist is that the former provides an avenue by which to monitor blood flow, says the co-founder Steven LeBoeuf. He said Valencell's PerformTek sensor technology removes "noise" such as sunlight and body motion from the measurement process to accurately track metrics like heart beat, respiration rate and body temperature--from earbuds.

The sensor is embedded into the earbud and contains an optical emitter, photodetector and accelerometer, according to the MIT Technology Review. In addition, a digital signal processor combines the physiological and body movement information and extracts the statistical signal using a patented method developed by Valencell. A study conducted by scientists at Duke University's medical school found that the sensor was able to accurately estimate the user's total energy expenditure and maximum oxygen consumption (VO2 max).

"I think that if you had the right, good-quality earbuds, you could actually do a lot in terms of reading biological signals related to the health of a person," Kevin Bowyer, chair of the University of Notre Dame computer science and engineering department, told MIT Technology Review.

Regardless of the scientific advantages, earbuds must overcome practical complications, such as convenience and wearability, although LeBoeuf told MIT Technology Review that they don't need to be worn continuously to yield useful information. One drawback of the PerformTek sensor is that it needs its own power source, but a prototype of PerformTek earbuds demonstrates by Intel at this year's International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas can be powered using a microphone jack, unlike the two PerformTek earbuds currently on the market, which need specialized batteries.

Similar to Samsung's Simband wrist-bound wearable platform, Intel's prototype is a reference design combining software and hardware that is designed for for others to build off of. And PerformTek touts its application programming interface (API) for sharing the data with health and fitness app developers, whose programs could become new-age "hearing aids."

The semiconductor company isn't the only Silicon Valley big dog interested in this space. AppleInsider reported in February that the pub's namesake company was granted a patent for a "sports monitoring system for headphones, earbuds and/or headsets" that can collect many of the same metrics as PerformTek. So far, Valencell's products are aimed principally at exercise monitoring, but it sure sounds like earbuds could be used for purely medical purposes as well.

- read the article in MIT Technology Review

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