New Apple Watch Patent Reveals Super-Cool Future Upgrade

Apple Watch

The next Apple Watch, or one after that, perhaps, could feature a ground-breaking new health feature: blood-pressure monitoring that’s done without a separate extra device such a blood-pressure cuff for the wrist or upper arm

Patent number 10,646,121, spotted by Apple Insider, was published earlier today and refers to “Pressure management designs”. Here’s the patent’s abstract (written as only patent lawyers know how to write!):

The present invention generally relates to the measuring and monitoring of blood pressure. More specifically, embodiments may apply the theory of applanation tonometry for the measurement of blood pressure. Some embodiments provide a method for measuring mean arterial pressure. Some embodiments provide a device that may be worn by a user that may non-invasively measure and monitor blood pressure of a user. In some embodiments, the invention generally relates to sensor arrays for use with a wrist-worn device to measure blood pressure. Embodiments of the sensor array designs described may be configured to improve resolution by decoupling nodes of the sensor array

So, let’s take all that apart. Oh, and since I looked it up, I will share with you that applanation tonometry is a method for measuring fluid pressure, currently mostly used in measuring pressure in the eye.

May 13 Update: The latest leak, as quoted by the increasingly reliable Jon Prosser from Front Page Tech, is very specific about health-related hardware and software that could be coming to the next Apple Watch, Series 6, due this Fall

While it’s not the blood pressure sensor discussed below, it’s pretty cool. Prosser, speaking on the Geared Up podcastrecently, exclusively revealed that there will be an SpO2 sensor in an upcoming Apple Watch, likely the Apple Watch Series 6 but just possibly the one after.

An SpO2 sensor is very topical right now. It measures your blood oxygenation. If that deteriorates, you feel ill. The reason it’s topical is COVID-19. With COVID-19, some sufferers aren’t feeling ill when their blood oxygenation falls, and checking the level with a blood oximeter, which uses an SpO2 sensor, is what first tells them something is amiss.

The company’s inclusion of this hardware will have pre-dated coronavirus, but you can bet accommodating readings so users can check their levels will be part of Apple’s intentions now. The company is not the first to include SpO2: Fitbit uses it on recent trackers to measure how your oxygen levels are doing but only while you’re sleeping.

As Prosser, explained, the purpose here takes things in a different direction.

“It’s not just the hardware, it’s how the software communicates with it,” Prosser said, adding that he’s never been so excited about an upcoming feature as this. While praising the addition of sleep tracking as the biggest feature set Apple is working on right now, it’s the prospect of mental health monitoring that is the most exciting innovation.

With this SpO2 sensor, Apple can “Take the oxygen levels in your blood with your heart rate and determine if you’re hyper-ventilating. They can identify a panic attack before it happens, and warn you on your Watch. Especially if you’re driving, they’ll ask you to pull over and they’ll offer you breathing exercises when you’ve pulled over. It’s incredible, the focus on mental health that they’re taking.”

It can even warn you before the panic attack begins. Prosser describes it as “So, so exciting. For a lot of people that could be life-changing.”

Back to the patent and here’s why it is very cool

No separate device needed

Apple Watch Series 5

This is key. The latest Samsung Galaxy Watch Active2 will be able to track blood pressure from this Fall, but only in South Korea at first. Read more about that here.

Additionally, when you use it, you have to calibrate it, once a month, by checking it against the result shown on a separate, standalone blood pressure cuff

If you don’t have one of those already, then that’s an extra expense and monthly commitment. You can already take a blood pressure measurement with a separate device and save the results to an Apple Watch app, but that’s cumbersome, too.

This patent aims to overcome the extra-device issue by using a spread of different sensors which between them will allow the Watch to measure blood pressure.

Apple From the patent, one image looks like it could use the Watch strap USPTO

It may use the Watch strap

We just don’t know. But at one point, the patent says: “The sensor array may include a sheet of flexible conductive film, such as a conductive silicone layer, positioned above a plurality of spaced apart proximal electrodes by a gap.”

Well, a flexible film surely can’t be part of the Watch itself, can it? And there’s an image which could possibly indicate this, though the caption for Fig. 3 is that it “illustrates an exemplary device according to some embodiments of the present disclosure.”

In other words, Apple is revealing a lot and as little as necessary at the same time.

A series of "curved capacitive sensor arrays" shown in the Apple patent USPTO

It is the Apple Watch, right?

It’s a fair point. At no point does it say so, but on the other hand, Apple’s resolute focus on health and fitness on the Watch makes certain this is a feature which would be built into Apple Watch if it goes anywhere.

When will it come?

Who knows? Apple will want to deliver it as soon as it’s ready but will be certain to take all the time it needs to get it right. When even a sliver of more information appears, I’ll be on the case.

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