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Apple’s latest digital health solution: AirPods

I’ve been monitoring the evolution of digital health for years.

Over time it has become increasingly certain that the next wave of digital health devices will provide much deeper analysis of what shape you are in than telling you when to stand up. Apple’s next adventure on this journey puts…

Health in your ears

Three newly-published Apple patents (filed September 2015) tell us a little about how Apple hopes to put health solutions inside its connected products. While the mere existence of patents doesn’t mean anything, the contents do hint how Apple thinks.

These three patents show Apple thinks it may make sense to put its advanced sensors inside all its connected wearables, augmenting human experience with tools to keep you well.

Apple has created patents for three different AirPod-style earbuds, each equipped with sensors capable of gathering useful health data about a user. The briefest possible explanation of these three ideas follows:

  • One set includes a photoplethysmogram (PPG) sensor (as used in Apple Watch) to monitor heart rate.
  • Another description is a fully kitted out physical condition monitoring system containing sensors for blood oxygen levels, heart activity, stress levels, body temperature, and more.
  • The third sensor is for a beamforming microphone array, a technology that enables more effective cancellation of background noise.

Read about these patents here, here, and here.

What this means

I find the second patent most interesting. It suggests a future of AirPods that goes far beyond the current functions of music playback, calls, and Siri.

(It actually advances the whole idea by answering new questions, just like that dreadfully limited Levis/Google wearable jacket doesn’t).

Used with an Apple Watch, it suggests far more accurate heart rate data (by cross referencing data from both devices).

The patent also suggests possibilities that a user will be able to ask Siri to explain their physical condition, or to create personalized exercise routines designed to push them to their limit, but capable of monitoring unique physical data to ensure they aren’t pushed too far.

That’s got to interest anyone who spends time thinking about how to deliver affordable personalized health and exercise analysis and advice, and certainly feeds into Apple’s bigger plans for the augmented human and remote monitoring of personal health.

More data, more value

These notions could be dismissed as highly speculative, except that we already know Apple has an intense focus on the digital health space.

The capacity to deliver increasingly accurate data to researchers using iOS and ResearchKit can only improve test results, leading to better software and more accurate analysis of the impact of digital solutions on human health.

Differential Privacy in conjunction with CareKit and machine intelligence solutions informed by these ResearchKit projects can only lead to more accurate, more effective, mass analysis of physical condition.

Tangible benefit

Health authorities will see tangible benefits from this kind of information, not just in terms of dealing with infectious disease, but also in terms of identifying, managing and improving treatment and response to more prosaic conditions, such as diabetes.

The worldwide cost of diabetes is estimated at $825 billion each year. That huge cost spans treatment, medical intervention, and the cost of treating serious complications, such as limb amputation.

Given that diabetes is a challenge that can be met with simple lifestyle, diet, and activity changes, sensor-based data picked up by AirPods or an Apple Watch in combination with effective data analysis and recommendation could have a profoundly positive impact on the global economy.

Apple Health may not be a joke

Comedian, Conan O’Brien recently made headlines with his commentary that iPhones can assist in healthcare delivery.

As I understand it, this was his response to some short sighted comment from some politician, but there is a tangible potential for Apple to deliver systems like these.

The iPhone, Apple Watch, and AirPods are rapidly becoming capable of professional quality health assessments, and big players in digital health are actively investing third party solutions that work with iOS and enhance this.

In conjunction with health-related data analysis and machine intelligence, Apple’s focus on digital health has the potential to deliver significant – and costable – benefits to public health.

Indeed, if the potential savings on the public purse are sufficient (just look at those billions in diabetes costs), future governments may even think it makes sense to make such solutions available to everyone. They may find that doing so saves more money on the financial burden of health and associated costs than not doing so entails.


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