Sensor technology that makes use of the natural physiology of the ear to track biometric data: could this be more accurate and efficient than other connected technologies now being used for health monitoring purposes?

By 2020 the ‘Internet of Things’ is set to embrace 27 billion connected objects, according to US information technology research and advisory firm Gartner. These figures are all the motivation North Carolina, US-based firm Valencell needed to begin developing its PerformTek sensor technology. Moreover, Valencell is clearly differentiating itself in the highly competitive ‘Quantified Self’ field by designing equipment to gather physiological data not from the wrist but based on the natural physiology of the human ear. The company’s technology can be used in, among other devices, audio headsets so as to measure biometric signals such as heart rate, oxygen uptake, body temperature and respiratory rate. Valencell co-founder Steven LeBoeuf underlines that using the natural physiology of the ear provides higher quality data , as blood flow there is easier to measure more accurately and produces a less polluted signal.

The ear is more accurate than the wrist

If ear-based data collection smacks of the traditional stethoscope, the technology used by Valencell is at the cutting edge of medical science – photoplethysmography. The basis of PerformTek biometrics is a highly compact, noninvasive, low-power, optomechanical sensor module configured to measure blood flow and body motion. Small enough to fit within an audio earbud without distorting the audio quality or comfort, the sensor module extracts biometric signals from ‘noise’ caused by bodily motion and the outer environment, including sunlight, and sends them to your smartphone. Because blood flows at varying rates at different places in the ear, the PerformTek technique enables measurement of a whole range of parameters with a high degree of precision. The analysis of ear blood flow therefore provides more accurate metrics on such parameters as the number of calories burned and oxygen absorbed (VO2 max) during physical exercise.

Beyond the Quantified Self

LeBoeuf is aware that it is more difficult to make a connected object that fits into your ear than one you wear on your wrist because the electronics need to be smaller and fit into each person’s ear, but he has no doubt about the potential range of applications of the PerformTek technology. He points out that many people already use audio headsets regularly and that you do not have to wear them all the time to obtain a powerful set of data. Valencell has had its technology tested by independent industry experts. For one, Kevin Bowyer, head of the computer science and engineering department at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, USA, who specialises in iris and ear biometrics, thinks it is certainly possible to obtain good physiological measurements the PerformTek way. Going forward beyond personal fitness/e-health tracking, the earbud sensors could also help monitor for example the state of health of soldiers on the ground or firemen called to deal with a hazardous situation. Even more imaginatively, in the field of entertainment, the equipment could be used to transpose the emotional state of a player to a character in a video game.

By Arthur de Villemandy