Microsoft files patent for 'multidimensional' optical heart rate sensor that could strengthen accuracy

Despite the patent, a re-entry into the wearables space seems unlikely for Microsoft, which just got out of that game earlier this year.
By Jonah Comstock
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A new patent filing suggests that Microsoft, which seemed to have definitively abandoned health wearables with the shutdown of the Microsoft Band in 2016 (and the decommissioning of its corresponding software program earlier this year) may be at least thinking about getting back in the game.

The patent filing, first spotted by Neowin, is for what the writers call a "multidimensional optical sensor" which could theoretically detect heart rate, pulse wave velocity, blood and tissue oxygenation, and more, including metrics that can proxy for blood pressure. The patent's authors argue that their design is potentially more accurate than existing optical sensors embedded in wearables, while remaining less invasive than clinical measuring tools (which can involve arterial catheters).

The sensor could be incorporated into a range of wearables including those worn on the wrist, arm or leg. One image even depicts the sensor built into a pair of glasses, over the wearer's temple.

WHY IT MATTERS

Accuracy concerns have plagued health wearables consistently since the devices first started to hit the market. (Here's a few examples from 2015 and 2016). Those concerns have even led to class-action lawsuits alleging that the inaccuracy has done medical harm. And recently STAT shined the spotlight on concerns that devices that rely on light-based sensors may be especially inaccurate for people of color. 

So a sensor that can measure the same things while definitively improving that accuracy, as Microsoft's proposed device claims to do, could be something of a game-changer. That said, our usual patent caveat applies: a patent is a long way from a market-ready device, and companies, especially large, well-resourced ones, often file patents that don't end up coming to fruition. By itself, this shouldn't be taken as evidence that Microsoft is getting back into a business it has, to all appearances, gotten out of.

THE LARGER TREND

The shutdown of Microsoft Band's health dashboard in March seemed to be the final nail in the coffin of Microsoft's Band wearable, which halted sales in 2016 The March move also included an offer of refunds for Band users and a warning that user data would be deleted by the end of May. A reversal — or a brand new entrée into the space —  this soon after that announcement would be surprising. We've reached out to Microsoft for comment and will update if they respond.