Next-Gen AirPods Could Get Light Sensors That Track Your Health

Courtney Linder
Photo credit: T3 Magazine - Getty Images

From Popular Mechanics

  • A report in DigiTimes suggests that a future version of Apple's AirPods may include ambient light sensors (ALS).
  • One of the most common use cases for ambient light sensors is to dim smartphone screens to the appropriate level for a given environment to save battery power.
  • If true, this feature probably won't hit the earbuds until at least 2021 or 2022.

Your Apple Watch lets you enroll in three separate health studies, and Fitbit lets you share heart data with institutions working on COVID-19 research. Now AirPods could become the next valuable health wearable with sensors to diagnose or track health conditions.

A report in DigiTimes says that a future version of the AirPods will use ambient light sensors (ALS) to take biometric measurements. "Apple is expected to incorporate ambient light sensors (ALS) in next-generation AirPods devices in the coming 1-2 years, and Taiwan's ASE Technology may handle the backend process for the new component," according to the report.

Another DigiTimes report says that the ambient light sensors will "monitor heart rates, step counts, health conditions, and even conduct intelligent translation and detect head motions."

Much of that does sound pretty redundant when you consider how much health data the iPhone and Apple Watch currently collect. AirPods could achieve this passively, ensuring that the AirPods collect any data that the others miss out on due to a low battery mid-run. But another Apple-centric website MacRumors has another theory: an on-ear pulse oximeter.

Pulse oximeters—the clip-on devices that a doctor puts on your finger during a visit—measures the saturation of oxygen carried in your red blood cells, according to the American Lung Association. These gadgets shine a cold light source through the fingertip (or other body part) so that the skin looks red. The machine analyzes the light to calculate a percentage of oxygen in the red blood cells.

These are useful in monitoring certain conditions that impact how well blood is pumped through the body, from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), to asthma, pneumonia, lung cancer, and even heart failure. According to Yale Medicine, pulse oximeters are even helpful in determining if someone has COVID-19 because one of the common symptoms is shortness of breath.

Photo credit: USPTO/Apple

But in the simplest cases, the devices measure your tolerance for certain physical activities like running. Some hospital-grade pulse oximeters already take advantage of the ear, shining light through the lobe. As MacRumors points out, AirPods don't exactly rest on the earlobe in a way that seems conducive to a pulse oximeter, which might mean the health feature is better suited for the Powerbeats Pro, which are already tailored for fitness.

But for now, this is all rumors. DigiTimes does have a pretty good track record of disclosing accurate hardware leaks, but the site isn't flawless. For instance, in early 2019, DigiTimes said that Apple would introduce AirPods with health monitoring features in the first half of 2019. At the tail end of last year, AirPods Pro came out, but alas, no health monitoring.

Probably the most convincing piece of evidence to support the health features comes from Apple, itself. A 2014 patent for a "Sports monitoring system for headphones, earbuds and/or headsets" supports collection of temperature, perspiration, and heart rate data.

If this feature turns out to be nothing more than pure speculation, the Apple Watch will likely pick up the slack.

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