Researchers find a way to use “off-the-shelf” earphones to measure heart rate

Researchers at Google are using active noise-cancelling headphones with updated software to measure heart rate.

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White wireless headphone in woman ear with four leaf clover earring

Credit: Getty / Milovan Zrnic

The days of using special equipment to measure heart rate could be over, as researchers have found a way to use everyday earphones instead.

Researchers at Google are using “off-the-shelf” active noise-cancelling earphones to measure heart rates, simply by using ingenuity and updated software.

In a new research blog, spotted by 9to5 Google, the scientists explain that something called photoplethysmography (PTG) uses light pulses to measure blood activity, but has limitations. Instead, the scientists are trying a different approach called audioplethsymography (APG), which uses ultrasound to measure the heart rate.

Put simply, it works by bouncing low-intensity ultrasound waves off the ear canal and using a tiny microphone to detect how the skin surface moves as blood pumps through. For some people, it is quite common to feel your heartbeat in your ears, and this technology builds off of that.

According to the blog, the technique was “resilient” regardless of ear canal size or skin tone. This seems quite ground-breaking as dark skin tones and even dark tattoos can often cause issues with heart rate accuracy with smartwatches.

“APG enables [active noise-cancelling earbuds] to monitor a user’s physiological signals, such as heart rate and heart rate variability, without adding extra sensors or compromising battery life,” the blog explains.

The exact earbud used in this experiment is unknown, but from what the researchers describe, it can be used in any off the shelf earphone with active noise-cancelling technology.


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