Apple is testing ways to use AirPods as a health device

By Malavika Pradeep

Published Oct 14, 2021 at 10:10 AM

Reading time: 3 minutes

In 2018, Apple added Live Listen support for AirPods, making it possible to double your iOS device as a directional mic and have the audio relayed into the wireless earphones. While the accessibility feature was intended to help people with hearing loss and blur the lines between earphones and hearing aids, many infamously used it to spy on their partners.

Apart from Apple’s ambitions of boosting real-time conversations, a recent review by The Wall Street Journal reveals how the company is actively working on the next big health push with its AirPods—currently exploring new ways to turn them into a health tracking device. According to documents reviewed by the publication, the new AirPods would not only enhance a wearer’s hearing but would also monitor and correct their posture. A prototype would additionally check their core body temperature as an attempt to provide all-round health insights.

‘But how can a pair of AirPods track temperature and posture?’ I hear you ask. The answer lies with motion sensors and in-ear thermometers. The device will alert wearers of their poor posture the moment they start slouching. Hints and tips on correcting this posture would also be offered along the way. When it comes to measuring one’s core temperature, which refers to the temperature of the body’s internal organs, infrared technology or an ear thermometer are commonly used outside of medical settings.

In terms of its alleged enhanced hearing functions, Apple has recently taken a step in this direction with the launch of ‘Conversation Boost’ in iOS 15. The feature essentially focuses your AirPods Pro on the person talking in front of you, making it easier to hear in a face-to-face conversation. While the success of this feature is yet to be seen, the latest report fuels suspicion whether the tech giant plans on expanding this existing feature or introduce an entirely new one.

Irrespective of these claims, Apple would face numerous hurdles in the quest of marketing AirPods as health gadgets. For starters, the device can’t be termed as ‘hearing aids’ today, given federal regulations that date back decades to when many of the devices were unsafe or ineffective. These restrictions require them to be sold through licensed hearing specialists who tune the aids to the wearer. The Wall Street Journal, however, noted how a US Food and Drug Administration ruleset due in 2022 might help make this possible—by creating a new category of over-the-counter hearing aids that consumers can tune themselves. Even though the rules are expected to permit companies like Apple, Bose and Samsung to market cheaper hearing aids, it could still take months to approve the earbuds.

Then there is the entire debate surrounding the technical challenges Apple will face. At the moment, AirPods Pro won’t last longer than 4.5 hours for listening (with noise cancelling switched on) and 3.5 hours for calls. These statistics are far from practical considering how one might need to use the device all day. On these terms, the design of such AirPods would have to ensure user comfort while inclusively adapting to various types of hearing loss.

The proposed AirPods features aren’t expected to roll out anytime soon either—with people familiar with the company’s plans even cautioning that the prototype will never see the light of day. But Doctor Nicholas Reed, an audiologist at Johns Hopkins, said the very prospect of Apple offering future AirPods as an over-the-counter hearing aid would be a potential game changer. According to him, the company’s ubiquitous earbuds can break age-old stigmas associated with traditional hearing aids, which often prevents people from wearing them, not to mention that the cost would be significantly lower in comparison. Frequent temperature and posture checking are also imperative in this regard, given how the former can be a sign of a serious medical condition while the latter has been associated with poor health by putting extra stress on both muscles and joints.

With almost 28 million Americans suffering from mild hearing loss and only 5 per cent of them using an aid, Apple’s strong commitment to accessibility might catapult others into a new market for health-focused wearables beyond devices like the new Apple Watch Series 7. A previous report by The Wall Street Journal also noted how the company aims to leverage iPhones to help diagnose depression and cognitive decline.

Healthcare has also been a prime focus for Apple, with CEO Tim Cook even believing that it’s what the firm will be remembered for. “If you zoom out into the future, look back and ask the question, ‘What was Apple’s greatest contribution to mankind?’ it will be about health,” he said in a CNBC interview back in 2019. Now it’s all a matter of living up to this vision and promise.

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