AirPods — Apple’s truly wireless stereo (TWS) earphones — could double as a health monitoring tool in the future, according to a patent application recently published by the US Patent Office (USPTO). The Cupertino company appears to have invented an AirPods sensor mechanism that would allow the earphones to monitor electrical impulses from the wearer’s brain. The patent describes a system that can monitor brain activity that is typically monitored with the use of electrodes on a patient’s head but the use of AirPods could provide a more discreet way to monitor brain activity.
A patent recently published on the USPTO website describes a wearable electronic device like Apple’s AirPods that is equipped with electrodes, similar to traditional devices used to monitor biosignals such as brain activity, including electroencephalography, electrooculography, galvanic skin response, blood volume pulse, and electromyography. This could allow an AirPods wearer to monitor their brain activity even when they are travelling, without the need for a machine.
Unlike the traditional EEG monitors that are attached to a user’s scalp, the AirPods are likely to move once they are inserted in a user’s ear. In order to account for the fact that ear shape and size can vary, the patent describes a system that integrates active and reference electrodes on the external body of the AirPods’ body, along with several additional electrodes located at different positions on the eartip.
Apple’s patent abstract states the “wearable electronic device includes a sensor circuit and a switching circuit. The switching circuit is operable to electrically connect a number of different subsets of one or more electrodes in the set of electrodes to the sensor circuit.” While the description might sound a little convoluted, the company has included a diagram (figure 2) of the purported device that shows the position of the electrodes on the wireless earphones.
These AirPods’ eartips will be replaceable, according to Apple’s patent application, which also described a mechanism (figure 5) that allows a user to tap a section of the earphone’s body to start measurement of biosignals.
Meanwhile, another diagram (figure 10) shows the location of both the electrodes on the eartip and the touch sensitive area from a different angle, while suggesting that the functionality could also be supported on wired earphones such as EarPods or a pair of glasses — the reference and active electrodes would be placed on the first and second stem of the glasses, according to the document.
It is currently unclear whether Apple plans to bring the ability to measure biosignals to its popular AirPods and other wearable devices, while a recent report suggests that the company is exploring ways to add new health features such as temperature monitoring to its earphones. Apple is also working on ways to enhance its existing health monitoring products and is reportedly working on adding non-invasive blood sugar monitoring to the Apple Watch, which is expected to make its way to a future version of the wearable device.