Earbuds Evolve into a Health Monitoring Device

by Harry Wang | Aug. 15, 2016

With rising consumer interest and hot venture money, the wearables market for health and wellness has taken a significant stride forward. The industry is currently fixated on who can dominate the wrist, an increasing number of innovations in sensors and form factors open doors for other opportunities—such as smart earbuds.

Human ears offer certain advantages for companies seeking to collect biometric data. Ears have blood vessels that supply information about heart rate, blood oxygen level, and blood pressure. They also do not move much compared with other human body parts like the wrist. Their fixed position is good for removing motion artifacts when tracking physical activities, which makes the collected data more accurate.

Several companies are leveraging the ears’ advantages to collect biometric data from earbuds for health and fitness use cases. Most notably, Valencell, a startup company pioneering biosensor technology for ear-based biometric data collection, first came up with an earbuds prototype for fitness tracking. Its PerformTek sensor technology measures real-time body metrics, including heart rate, respiration rate, speed, metabolic rate, and ventilator threshold, to help athletes and consumers better track their fitness activities. Valencell is also seeking FDA approval of its sensor technology for health vital sign tracking targeting patients with hypertension and diabetes.

The earbuds market for health and wellness use cases has also attracted large technology companies. For instance, Intel is working with SMS Audio, a high-end earphone maker, to integrate fitness tracking into earbuds. SMS Audio’s Biosport brand earbuds feature embedded heart rate monitoring functions for more accurate fitness tracking. These earbuds do not require a battery—they draw power directly from the user’s phone or MP3 player through the standard 3.5mm audio jack, which improves wearing comfort by being lighter. LG also launched its smart earbuds featuring in-ear heart rate monitoring in early 2015. Even Apple has shown interest—in February 2014, Apple was awarded a patent for a monitoring system that can be built into earbuds to track biometrics such as body temperature, heart rate, and perspiration level.

An earpiece can also monitor eating habits by listening to chewing sounds and monitoring jaw movement. BitBite, an IndieGoGo-backed start-up, is taking this approach to encourage mindful eating habits and weight loss among users. Additional use cases with ear-based biometric monitoring may surface in the future.

However, there are several challenges for smart earbuds as a health and wellness monitoring tool. In addition to the size limitation, power remains a challenge. Adding a battery to earbuds increases bulkiness, whereas relying on a phone audio jack may not provide enough power for multiple functions. In addition, the audio jack needs to support both power and data transmission, which can be a challenge in product design, especially when the earbuds do not possess their own processor.

The wearable market for health and wellness applications is booming as a growing number of entrepreneurs are exploring innovative means to help consumer track and manage their wellness tasks. Smart earbuds still have many technology and marketing hurdles to overcome, but they point to a new direction for wearable product development and may eventually help the hearable market diversify from current music applications to health and wellness use cases.

Parks Associates' third-annual Connected Health Summit will feature in-depth discussion on health innovations and disruptions. The sessions "Everything Disruptive: What Consumers Can Expect from Care Innovators" and "Venture Capital and Investment Trends in Consumer Health" on September 1 will dive into the start-ups and partnerships shaking up the industry. I hope you can attend the event!

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