As we glide inexorably to the next Apple event (here’s when it will take place), a new research paper shows a whole new side to AirPods and AirPods Pro. It indicates a striking new capability which could be coming to AirPods 3, and perhaps the current AirPods and AirPods Pro, as well.
And this research paper comes with some authority: it’s from Apple itself, in conjunction with Cornell University’s arxiv.org. You can find it at both locations—on the Apple site it’s in the Machine Learning Research section.
Spotted by the excellent MyHealthyApple, it shows that in-ear headphones can estimate respiratory rate from the sound your breath makes.
The paper doesn’t initially mention AirPods by name, but, hey, given who’s involved, it’s a pretty sure bet which brand it’s referring to, and later on, it’s more revealing, naming which earbuds were used.
First, it specifies the following:
“Respiratory rate (RR) is a clinical metric used to assess overall health and physical fitness… This work investigates a model-driven approach to estimate RR from short audio segments obtained after physical exertion in healthy adults. Data was collected from 21 individuals using microphone-enabled, near-field headphones before, during, and after strenuous exercise. RR was manually annotated by counting perceived inhalations and exhalations.”
So, why is this important? Well, as the paper explains, “Remote estimation of RR can offer a cost-effective method to track disease progression and cardio-respiratory fitness over time.”
In other words, like all Apple’s health initiatives, its relevance is not just limited to keen athletes. As the paper says, “Though we focus on discerning RR in the context of fitness activity and not clinical breathlessness detection specifically, findings could in turn be used for medical applications.”
Well, it’s a whole new avenue for AirPods to be going down, though it’s something that Apple has hinted at previously. And if you’re wondering which version of Apple earbuds was used in the research, the paper goes on to tell you.
“All data was recorded using microphone-enabled, near- range headphones, specifically Apple’s AirPods. These particular wearables were selected because they are owned by millions and utilized in a wide array of contexts, from speaking on the phone to listening to music during exercise.”
In other words, by using breathlessness scores, as quantified by the Borg Dyspnea Scale, which sounds very Star Trek but isn’t, the AirPods can assess the severity of several respiratory disorders including peripheral artery disease. It’s impressive that the entry-level AirPods are capable of this kind of detailed listening to someone’s breath and it shows you those beam-forming microphones are plenty clever.
What we can’t tell from this is whether it’s a feature which will be implemented in every version of AirPods or just upcoming ones, or none at all. And will it require an Apple Watch to measure the breath or a clinical set-up at your health provider?
Either way, it’s an exciting development.