Google is rolling out a new set of health monitoring features to Pixel phones, and they could come to more Android devices soon. That’s because Google’s new respiration and heart rate scanning tech is not based on a specialized sensor — it relies on your smartphone’s existing cameras. Like many of Google’s machine learning projects, this one is coming first to Pixel phones, and more phones will probably get it down the line.
According to Google, doctors often use simple visual analysis to estimate a patient’s respiration. Its new health feature works the same way, except it’s an algorithm on your phone that’s doing the calculation. The front-facing camera takes measurements by watching for small movements in the head and chest. The app will show you exactly how to position yourself in the frame to get the most accurate reading.
The heart rate monitoring is a bit different, but it still uses the phone’s camera sensors. Although, it’s the rear camera this time. You simply place your finger over the camera sensor, and the app uses subtle color changes from blood flow to nail down your pulse. It’s similar to the feature Samsung included on its phones for several years, starting with the Galaxy S5. However, Samsung stopped including this additional sensor because it’s not terribly convenient to use. Wearable devices like smartwatches and fitness bands can collect continuous heart rate data.
Google says there’s still value in collecting health data like this. Not everyone has a wearable device, and even getting one set of health metrics per week is still potentially useful data. The company hopes adding these features to existing smartphones will make it easy for a large number of people to start monitoring their health stats. These new features come with one notable caveat: This is a tool for general wellness and not intended to diagnose or treat any disease. Google isn’t making any specific medical claims, so the features don’t need to go through FDA clearance. However, Google says its internal testing has found the camera-based estimates to be very accurate. The pulse readings are within two percent of reality, and the respiration tracker is only off by about one breath per minute. Google also notes that it tested the AI on both light and dark-skinned people with similar results.
Heart rate and respiration tracking will roll out to Pixels this month. Google will continue to evaluate the features and hopes to make them available on other devices in the future.
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