Last week the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) awarded Apple a patent for a "seamlessly embedded heart rate monitor" that the company's R&D department envisions using for authentication, personalization, and other features on imagined future devices. Apple has filed for a number of digital health-related patents over the years, MobiHealthNews rounded up a few way back in 2010. The list back then included sensor-laden clothing, peel-and-stick baby monitors, advanced activity sensing, an earbud for tracking various biometrics, as well as the filing for the patent Apple secured this week.
The awarded patent is specifically for "an electronic device having an integrated sensor for detecting a user's cardiac activity and cardiac electrical signals". Apple describes one iteration of the technology as being embedded in their mobile device's housing or beveled edges: "In some embodiments, the leads can be coupled to pads placed on the exterior of the housing," the patent reads. "The pads and housing can be finished to ensure that the pads are not visibly or haptically distinguishable on the device, thus improving the aesthetic qualities of the device."
Apple believes an easy to use heart rate sensor could help its devices authenticate users and enable them to access data or applications on devices only meant for them. This could be helpful for protecting sensitive data stored on or accessible through devices, but it could also create device profiles for devices shared by teams in an enterprise or members of a family.
Other digital health companies have leveraged biometric data to more personalize their user experience. Withings, for example, uses a person's weight and other data to automatically identify which of the pre-loaded household members might be stepping on the scale at any given time.
The Apple patent notes that some devices use passwords, fingerprints, voice prints, facial features or other biometric data to authenticate users.
"Other biometric-based approaches can be used to authenticate a user," Apple argues. "In some embodiments, an electronic device can authenticate a user based on the attributes of the user's heartbeat. For example, the durations of particular portions of a user's heart rhythm, or the relative size of peaks of a user's electrocardiogram (EKG) can be processed and compared to a stored profile to authenticate a user of the device. To detect a user's heartbeat or heart rhythm, however, the electronic device must provide at least two leads that the user contacts to detect the user's cardiac signals. Although the leads can simply be placed on the exterior surface of the device housing, for example in a defined location where the user may place a finger, this approach is not aesthetically pleasing, and may cause some prospective buyers to consider other devices."
Apart from noting that the heart sensor could detect the user's mood based on data extracted from heart data, the patent makes no mention of the more obvious ways an EKG sensor embedded seamlessly into a future iPhone or iWatch might be used to monitor a user's health or fitness levels. When it comes to applications of the patented technology, Apple's research team focuses almost entirely on the authentication use case for an embedded heart rate sensor.