March 14, 2023


Apple may be looking at expanding the repertoire of its popular AirPods line beyond entertainment and into the realm of health.

Speculation about giving the health chops to AirPods was fueled over the weekend by Mark Gurman, who predicted in his Power On newsletter for Bloomberg that Apple would upgrade the product over the next year or two to make it a health device.

“It’s a natural move for Apple. Fitness has been a primary focus for their wearable devices,” said Mark N. Vena, president and principal analyst at SmartTech Research in San Jose, Calif.

“I think they can start taking the AirPods in a smart hearing aid direction,” he told TechNewsWorld.

There’s no question if Apple will bring health features to the AirPods, but when, maintained Julie Ask, a vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research.

“Apple plays a long game,” he told TechNewsWorld. “They have long been committed to health. And, like many consumer electronics companies, they will pursue and prioritize problems at scale where they believe they have the competitive ability to make a difference.” Is.

market opportunity

One area to which Apple has pledged significant resources is helping people with diabetes manage their blood sugar levels. The potential for that kind of application is enormous. According to the US Centers for Disease Control, 37.3 million people in the United States have diabetes – 28.5 million adults are diagnosed with the disease and 8.5 million are undiagnosed.

Similarly, the hearing aid market could also be substantial for Apple. According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, about 15% of American adults age 18 and older — 35.5 million people — have reported some degree of hearing loss. The institute estimates that about 28 million adults could benefit from hearing aids.

“If Apple wipes out the hearing aid market with a $300 replacement that’s more dynamic and effective, and my insurance pays for it, that’s huge,” he declared.

“There are millions of people who have moderate hearing loss, and they don’t even know it. Or if they do know it, they don’t want to admit it because people who admit they have hearing loss tend to get older. admit to, and they put a stigma on it,” Vena said.

“If Apple can incorporate smart hearing into a device like the AirPods,” he continued, “it could remove some of the stigma of wearing a hearing aid. It could be a tailwind for Apple’s product.”

History of Apple’s Health Patents

About a year ago, The Mac Observer reported that Apple had filed a patent describing advanced features for hearing aids that run on devices made for the iPhone. The patent describes a method for creating a configuration for controlling the volume of hearing aids based on environmental conditions. Those configurations can be automatically selected based on GPS and map information.

The patent for souping up the AirPods with health features goes back to at least 2014. In those years, Apple filed a patent for using the ear and a photoplethysmography (PPG) sensor to monitor a person’s heart rate and mark their blood flow across the skin of the ear. It has also proposed electrocardiogram sensors, impedance cardiography, galvanic skin response, VO2 sensing and body temperature measurement.

“Today many companies are using new sensors to monitor health conditions,” said Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies, a technology advisory firm in San Jose, California.

“Adding the health features gives Apple and others a way to differentiate their EarPods from each other,” he told TechNewsWorld.

There’s already some hearing-aid tech in Apple’s current crop of AirPods. Live Listen, which works with Made for iPhone hearing devices connected to an iPhone, iPad or iPod touch, lets users stream audio, answer phone calls, adjust settings, and more.

A similar feature, Conversation Boost, is supported by Apple’s AirPods Pro. This allows an iPhone to be used as a microphone, making it easier to hear someone in a noisy environment by pointing the phone at the person you’re talking to; Their speech gets boosted when sent to the AirPods Pro device.

apple airpods pro

AirPods Pro (Image Credit: Apple)

These types of features can serve as an alternative to hearing aids. “Think about how you can change the font size on your smartphone so you don’t have to use ‘readers,'” Ask explained.

Sleep characteristics?

According to Jose Adorno, writing for BGR, it may not be necessary to wait for future AirPods versions to see health features appear on the devices as current versions of the products have the hardware to support these types of features.

“More recently, Apple turned on the HomePod mini sensor to check room temperature and humidity two years after its release, to coincide with a new HomePod announcement, which means the company may be working on a new version of the AirPods.” Might as well do the same,” he wrote.

The AirPods are already equipped with sensors – dual beamforming microphones for directional sound, inward-facing microphones for reducing background noise, skin-detecting sensors, motion-detecting accelerometers, and speech-detecting accelerometers.

“These devices are full of sensors,” ask the noted. What does this mean? You can jam more sensors into a smaller form factor and not reduce battery life while still getting more utility.

Vena said that if Apple wants to get serious about health features aimed at hearing loss, it may need to change the design of the AirPods.

“Over time, they may be able to measure the quality of a person’s hearing and give them feedback through an app, which could allow a person to take retrospective action on their hearing loss,” he said.

“It requires a different design,” he continued. “I’m not sure they can accomplish that kind of stuff without some kind of in-ear canal solution. When you start monitoring hearing properly, I don’t think there’s any mechanism in the ear canal.” You can get away with it without.

reduce device dispersion

Ask, however, it’s hard to imagine Apple moving away from its current model when it adds health features to the AirPods.

“Put them in a Pro version, charge a premium for the new hardware and then slowly migrate these features to downstream products,” he said.

“If they think they can, they will also go after the services revenue,” he added. “It could also be part of a longer-term play. As they roll out more services, maybe they’ll eventually have a large enough portfolio to get $5 to $15 a month or more from their users. Is.

By making its AirPods a dual-function device, Apple can help reduce device proliferation. “We’re at the point where we have to carry a lot of wearable devices,” Vena observed. “If Apple can get that down, that’s a big deal.”