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Earbuds to check your blood pressure

A new earbud doubles up as a blood pressure device. Image credit: Valencell

In these last few days we have been flooded by tech news from CES 2020 in Las Vegas. No point in repeating all of that on this post. If you missed something just google for CES 2020 (at the time of writing of this post a Google search on CES 2020 Tech News returned over 1 billion pointers!). Here you find a good summary by Wired.

I am picking up this news not because it was presented at CES 2020 but because it comes from a company I have been following for some time because it focuses on wearable sensors, Valencell. They are not alone in this area but they an be used as representative of a growing trend towards embedding sensors in any object, with a specific focus on embedding biometric sensors on wearable.

We have been used to very sophisticated (and costly) devices to monitor our health: we suspect a problem, or just want to check to be sure nothing is lurking in our body, and we go to a medical center where they have the right equipment and the right people to make it work and interpret the result.

Although tech cost is decreasing we wouldn’t be able to afford one of those equipment at home. Besides, it is not jsut about buying it. It is about maintaining it in working order, calibrating it and of course be skilled in its use.

A few companies, like Valencell, have decided for a different approach. Make do with devices that do not ensure measurement as accurate as the one provided by medical centres ones and use software to digest multiple measurements to achieve similar, if not better, level of accuracy.

To give an example, my Apple Watch sometimes comes up with unlikely measures, like very low heart beat on a brisky walk. Checking on the watch I usually discover that the watch band has become loose and the watch has lost contact continuity, hence drawing a false measurement. However, by the end of the day, I can get a fairly accurate report on my heart beats because it covers the whole day. It is this continuity that makes up for single measure inaccuracy.

This is also the point of Valencell in explaining their sensor to detect blood pressure (watch the clip). The sensor is of course crucial, but the accuracy is an emergent feature of continuous data harvesting and data analyses by software.

Valencell has designed a sensor that can be embedded in an earbud and provides it, together with the software to analyse the data that has been trained with data from 30,000 measurement taken on 4,000 people, to companies for their inclusion in earbuds. The data analyses requires as pre-setting data  on the height, weight, age and gender and then it is ready to convert data detected by the sensors over a period of 30″ into blood pressure measure.

The sensor uses optical detection,  similarly to sensors used in smart watches to detect heart beat. Valencell claims the ear is a good location to take continuous measurements since it stays at a constant distance from the heart.

This decade will see the uptake of wearable, thanks to the convergence of several technologies like sensors, flexible electronics, smart materials. Part of these wearables will be used in monitoring our body and will change the landscape of healthcare.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.