Making biometrics universal in hearables and hearing health
By Dr. Steven LeBoeuf
President & Co-Founder, Valencell, Inc.
Bellwether for Biometric Earpieces
The recently announced between Valencell and Sonion, world leaders in wearable biometric sensing and hearing health components respectively, is a bellwether that the hearables and hearing health marketplace is on the verge of seismic change. Devices once used solely for audible communication, hearing enhancement, or audio entertainment will now also help manage health issues and promote healthy living.
Indeed, at the heart of Valencell’s foundational patents on wearable heart rate (PPG) sensors in 2006 was the vision that healthy living would be easier, more effective, and more affordable through seamless biometric sensor technology in earpieces – headphones, earbuds, hearing aids, hearables and the like. But there have been many obstacles in the way of this noble vision. The Valencell-Sonion partnership has made it possible to rapidly overcome the remaining obstacles and to substantially improve public health.
The founding idea behind Valencell was that there was a largely unrealized, unmet need for personalized guidance towards improved health that could be answered by processing user-specific data collected from sensors embedded in a single device that people already wear each day (as cartooned in the graphic below).
From the beginning, we believed that the ear was the best spot for this “single device”. There are numerous reasons for reasons for this, and so I’ll list just a few:
- Due to its unique physiology, the ear is one of the most accurate spots on the body to measure physiological information,
- One can measure more biometrics at the ear than any other single location on the body,
- Environmental sensors at the ear (exposed to the environment at all times) can assess what airborne vapors and particles one is breathing and expiring, and
- People already wear earbuds, headphones, hearing aids, etc. routinely throughout their lives, making compliance quite high.
After pondering the biometric earpiece pitch above, you may say, “This makes perfect sense! How come I don’t see hearables everywhere?” As it happens, with millions of Valencell-powered devices in the marketplace, Valencell has been quite successful in proliferating ear-worn biometric sensing. But “millions” is not “tens of millions”, and even “tens of millions” does not truly represent “mass consumer” (100M+) volumes. So what gives? Obstacles.
Overcoming Obstacles through Partnership
Many obstacles have thwarted the mass consumerization of biometric earpieces: 1) unwearable PPG, 2) high power consumption, 3) price, 4) a lack of popular use cases, and 5) zero market awareness. Fortunately, some of these obstacles have already been overcome through Valencell’s relentless efforts, and those remaining will be addressed through the strategic partnership between Valencell and Sonion.
A summary is presented below:
Lack of wearable PPG
Before Valencell came into the picture, there was no such thing as truly wearable PPG. The only PPG-based devices were pulse-oximeters that clipped onto one’s fingers in a hospital. While it’s true that you (technically) “wore” these on your finger on a hospital bed, these devices were not truly wearable because they didn’t function throughout real-life activities. I must say that I was personally shocked when testing a popular hospital-grade pulse oximeter during exercise, only to find out it didn’t work during running and it didn’t work at all outdoors (due to the inability to remove noise artifacts from footstep-related motion and sunlight). Fortunately, Valencell was able to solve this problem on its own, enabling a consumer market for biometric headphones.
The need for low power consumption and high battery life in wearables is well-publicized and continues to be a major challenge. Combined with Valencell’s own innovations, our relationships with ST and Ambiq Micro have helped us drop power consumption by a factor of 25X over the past 5 years. Still, the power consumption requirements for hearing aids is ~10X lower than for audio earbuds, and the partnership with Sonion will help address this.
With tens of millions of sports headphones sold each year, Valencell’s key goal has been to make biometrics a “must have” for all sports headsets. The biggest obstacle to this goal has been price. Namely, adding biometrics to your audio headset increases the retail cost by more than is feasible for many lower prices sports headsets. Working with Sonion, we believe we can get the price-point down low enough such that high-quality $99 biometric sports headsets will be reality.
I’m continually surprised when our partners share a story about one of their customers being delighted to find out for the first time that sports headsets can measure heart rate. Unlike the case for fitness bands and smartwatches, where a myriad of marketing efforts have been directed to explain how these products can measure heart rate, relatively small efforts have been directed towards raising this type of awareness for biometric headsets. Announcements like the Valencell-Sonion partnership help in this regard, but there is much more work to be done here.
To date, the “killer app” for accurate heart rate monitoring is sadly the same use case that’s been around since the invention of the HR chest strap – heart rate zone training. Don’t get me wrong – I dig that use case and in fact use it during every workout. But there’s a lot more to accurate heart rate than simply heart rate zone training. For example, you are starting to see more wearables utilize VO2 max assessments as a measure of cardiovascular fitness and HRV for sleep and stress analytics.
With that said, there is a need for the popularization of new use cases to make accurate heart rate monitoring ubiquitous in all form-factors. Considering the large overlap between populations needing hearing aids and populations requiring health monitoring, the Valencell-Sonion partnership will demonstrate new compelling use cases for accurate heart rate monitoring.
Positive Impact in the Marketplace
The proliferation of affordable biometric earpieces will positively impact the consumer wearables marketplace is numerous ways, both near-term and long-term. As discussed above, an immediate impact will be that biometrics will be a “must have” for all wireless sports earbuds. In the longer-term, this will also address the “sock-drawer effect” that has limited growth in wrist-worn wearables, as wearables and hearables will provide more compelling user experiences that deliver meaningful value to people every day.
For medical wearables, the impact of the Valencell-Sonion partnership will be even more pronounced. The accelerated R&D is leading to highly integrated medical sensor technologies not only for hearing aids but also for wearables in any form-factor. Valencell brings medical-grade accuracy to the table, and Sonion brings miniaturization and wide-scale manufacturing/distribution to the table. Not only will hearing aids soon be able to assess one’s health, assist in disease management, and even identify health issues before they’re irreversible, new use cases combining biometric sensing with hearing enhancement can be realized. For example, imagine the case where autonomously detecting one’s stress level can be used to automatically adjust audio levels tailored to one’s unique hearing preferences or to improve how voice assistants respond to your queries.
Last but not least, it should be noted that the accelerated R&D in this new partnership will not only lead to substantial advancements in ear-worn solutions but also in virtually any form-factor suitable for wearable PPG. For example, R&D focused on improving performance, validating new metrics, and reducing cost, power, and size will have complimentary impacts on wrist-worn devices, patches, and other wearable form-factors. Thus, Valencell’s sensor solutions for all form-factors will be getting a major boost, addressing numerous unmet market needs in wearables.
Needless to say, but I’ll say it anyway, we’re very excited about this partnership and the impact it will have on the market. If you’d like to hear more about what we have planned, reach out to us in the form on the right and we’d be happy to discuss.