One of the most interesting trends occurring with wearables right now is the early implementation of medical-grade sensors into consumer products. The most notable example of this would be when Apple introduced the Apple Watch Series 4, which has an electrocardiogram sensor built into the device. Now, Samsung has announced an upcoming second edition to its Galaxy Watch Active line of smartwatches, one that will include an ECG monitor (initially, this will not be activated on the device until Samsung has gained FDA clearance).
There are essentially three types of sensors that have been embedded into wrist-worn and/or ear-worn wearables. The first would be the inertial sensors, namely the gyroscope and accelerometers. These are the sensors that detect one’s movement and orientation, allowing for all the Fitbit-type metrics we’ve grown accustomed to, such as step tracking. Another interesting way these sensors can be purposed is to detect falls, which is what Starkey’s Livio AI hearing aid uses to do just that.
The second sensor that has been implemented widely in our body-worn computers, are PPG-optical sensors. PPG stands for photoplethysmogram, and these type of sensors use LED lasers to penetrate the skin and capture blood flow patterns. The patterns are then fed back into the wearables’ data algorithms to be measured, ultimately providing a heart rate readout. It’s a clever and non-invasive way to measure one’s heart rate, and although there are some flaws in the method, many of said flaws have been progressively alleviated as the technology advances.
The newest sensor to be incorporated into wearables are the aforementioned electrocardiogram sensors (ECG). ECG sensors are intended to collect and measure the electrical signals generated by the heart. This means that ECG sensors can be used to detect potential threats or issues transpiring with one’s heart, such as atrial fibrillation. Just look at how many stories there already are of people attributing their Apple Watch series 4 with saving their life (1, 2, 3)
What’s fascinating about ECG sensors being implemented into these consumer devices is that they are one of the first big, bold steps toward transforming wearables into preventative health tools. As we see more and more consumer wearables (and eventually hearables) outfitted with medical grade sensors, one of the primary use cases for wearables will possibly be to serve as, “guardians of our health,” by actively monitoring our biometrics for threats in our bio-data, and then warn us of what’s found in the data. That’s a future scenario that’s well underway in its development.
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