Apple patents health tracking earphones

Latest patent application from tech giant confirms a strong interest in the health and fitness sector - but the company has yet to confirm any solid plans

An image from Apple's patent application shows earphones with built in monitors for biometric and movement data.
An image from Apple's patent application shows earphones with built in monitors for biometric and movement data.

It seems increasingly likely that Apple’s next major product launch will be in the fitness and health sector after news that the company was recently granted a new patent for a headphone-based “sports monitoring system”.

The application describes technology that could be fitted to headphones or earbuds and that uses a skin sensor to measure biometric data including temperature, perspiration and heart rate. The patent also mentions multiple accelerometers that could be used to track and distinguish between different types of movement.

The application was made back in 2007 but was only recently spotted by tech site Apple Insider. The date of the patent’s filing means that any device was probably being considered for use with the iPod as a device for tracking work-out sessions.

Since then the market has developed, and it now seems likely that Apple be looking at developing either a smartwatch (which so far mainly function as expensive second screens for smartphones, displaying basic notifications and updates) or a fitness tracker (the various bracelets that are worn 24/7 and are used to track movements and fitness).

Fitness trackers such as the Jawbone UP (pictured) have focused on providing data about the wearer's movements.

The possibility of the company releasing a so-called iWatch has been a rumour ever since Apple CEO Tim Cook mentioned that he thought “the wrist is interesting” for development back in May 2013. However, this latest patent describes features that would more likely be found in a fitness tracker, suggesting that perhaps Apple will be looking to unite the two product categories.

In some ways Apple has already begun to move into the sector. Their latest iPhone, the 5S, integrated a mobile chip dedicated to watching the smartphone’s various sensors without wasting battery by powering up the main processor and another recent rumour suggested that a major software update could include a ‘Healthbook’ app that collects and analyses this data.

Smartwatches like the Galaxy Gear (pictured) have been widely promoted but offer little in the way of extra functionality.

Uniting the convenience of a smartwatch with the functionality of a health tracker would be a major coup for Apple, but the company’s reputation means that they’re more likely to spend time tweaking and improving the functionality of the device.

Until Apple makes any announcements though, the more outlandish sort of speculation will continue. A recent article by the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the company was exploring various devices including audio sensors that can “predict heart attacks” by listening to the sound that blood makes as it flows through arteries.

For a company with almost $160 billion (£100 bn) in cash and investments this sort of technology isn't beyond the realms of the imagination, but Apple might have to get a move on to keep ahead in the market: a smart earphone gadget that offers the same functionality as their patent application (and more) recently raised more than $2 million on Kickstarter.

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