According to a recent Yahoo Entertainment report, an 18-year-old says her Apple Watch alerted her to a serious health issue. The teen, Deanna Recktenwald, told Inside Edition’s Mara Montalbano that her Apple Watch picked up on an unusual heart rate. Since Deanna’s mom is a nurse she was able to take her pulse and confirm the watch’s alert.
Deanna went to the emergency room, where blood tests showed Deanna was in kidney failure.
This is one example of how biometrics can be used by people to self-monitor their health. Biometric technology is now becoming available in ear-worn devices. Some hearing aids and other amplification devices (e.g.,PSAPs) enable their users to record heart rate, number of steps walked, even caloric in-take. The original Bragi Dash was among the first such devices to offer this type of functionality in an ear-level device and speculation that Apple may be expanding biometric capabilities in a future update of their popular AirPods has been circulating for some time. In fact, last year Apple was rumored to be working on sensor technology that can non-invasively monitor blood sugar levels to manage diabetes–possibly through the use of AirPods or a similar ear-worn technology.
Unlike a Fitbit-like worn on the wrist, a device that gathers biomechanical data at ear-level is thought by some researchers to be more accurate, and perhaps more convenient to use because of its multi-tasking ability. That is, a user can listen to music or talk on their phone in a hands-free manner, while the system collects biometric data.
Although many amplification devices incorporating biometric function are yet to be commercially available, biometric technology contained within a hearing device holds tremendous promise in future healthcare applications.
Hearing Aids, Hearables and Biometrics
It is the multi-tasking capability of these devices when paired to a smartphone and adjusted with an app that conjures the term “hearable” to describe them. As the Consumer Technology Association stated in a January, 2018 press release, “Hearables represent an evolution beyond wireless earbuds, with the integration of smart capabilities and controls and instant pairing between mobile devices with the use of near-field communication. First generation hearables include features like digital assistant compatibility (i.e. Alexa, Bixby, Google Assistant, Siri), built-in fitness tracking/health biometric capabilities.”
In 2017, Phonak launched a product that measures and analyzes the unique characteristics of an individual’s ear anatomy and identifies over 1600 biometric data points, within each ear. These data points are saved into the hearing aid’s memory, reliably sense where sound is coming from, and in theory, provide more improvement in speech understanding-in-noise for its users.
Biometrics is even being used in so-called hearable devices for personal identification. In 2016 the NEC publicized a technology worn in the ear that uses sound waves to acoustically recognize and identify a person based on the size and shape of their ear.
Soon, it may be commonplace that such devices are regularly used to assist in the monitoring of chronic illnesses, improve cyber-security measures, and like the warning alert provided by the Apple Watch over an irregular heart rate, these devices may become instrumental in saving lives.
One can imagine that over time as sensor technology improves and provides an even greater amount of reliable information, the biometric data provided by wearable devices–such as hearing aids and hearables–will have the potential to provide incredible insights into a person’s individual health.