Let Your Heart Rate Control Your Music with Intel’s Smart Earbuds

Smart Earbuds

The earbuds are lightweight but slightly bulky due to added sensors.

Ever noticed yourself slowing down during a workout to match the music you’re listening to? Intel has. At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2014, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich unveiled their new creation; smart earbuds measure your heart rate and then adjust your playlist in response.

If your heart rate is outside of your target range, your iOS or Android will notify you. The earbuds then play songs at a slower or faster tempo to ease you back to your target heart rate, increasing the efficiency of your workout. The earbuds track your heartbeat in real time – eliminating the manual checks required by heart rate watches – and are automatically powered through the headphone jack. They will also be programmable, a plus for app developers.

Current heart rate monitors for exercise include wireless chest straps or finger-activated pulse monitors on your wrist that electronically detect your pulse (REI). So how do heart rate monitors work?

The Heart’s Electrical Impulses

Every heart beat is facilitated by electrical impulses caused by voltage-gated ion channels (proteins) in the cell membrane that change shape to allow ions to flow in or out depending on the surrounding voltage (this is determined by the concentration of nearby charged ions such as sodium, potassium, and calcium). As channels open and close, the ion movement causes adjacent channels to respond, propagating the signal. (More info on electrical impulses can be found on Science Mag)

An ECG reading.

An example of an ECG reading.

The electrical signals of the heart can be read and recorded by an Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG) as follows:

1. A group of cells that make up the Sinoatrial (SA) node starts each electrical signal from the right atrium (upper right chamber of the heart, which has 4 chambers total).

A signal propagating through the heart.

The SA node is the natural pacemaker of the heart.

2. The signal travels from the SA node to the left atria (upper left chamber of the heart) – note that heart diagrams always have their left and right sides flipped since the point of view is straight on, as if you were looking at the heart of someone standing facing you.

As this signal moves from right atria to left, it causes the atria to contract. This forms the P wave of the ECG reading (shown in green below).

P wave of ECG

3. The signal then moves from the atria (top chambers) to the ventricles (bottom chambers) through the Atrioventricular (AV) node, another group of cells. As the signal passes through this node, it slows down; this forms the flat line between the P and Q wave of the ECG reading (shown in red).

AV node of ECG

4. After leaving the AV node, the signal travels along a pathway called the bundle of His. It then spreads very quickly across both ventricles, causing the main contraction as the blood is pumped from the heart to the lungs and body. This results in the QRS waves shown in black:

QRS complex

5. Lastly, the ventricles relax and the heart refills with blood, shown by the T wave in light blue.

Full ECG signal

(More info on the heart’s electrical impulses can be found on Boston Scientific)

Now you understand the squiggle patterns on a heart rate monitor! But why is Intel focusing on smart earbuds when they’re known for computer chips?

The Shift

As the world’s largest PC chip maker, Intel suffered a rough patch last year: PC shipments dropped 6.9% in the fourth quarter of 2013 compared to a year prior. This had a “direct impact on company performance,” as the share price dropped over 6% to $24.54 following a slightly disappointing earnings announcement in mid-January (Seeking Alpha). The company seems to be shifting slightly away from the PC industry, as shown by these smart earbuds (named by Wired as one of the Top 10 Gadgets at CES 2014).

The earbuds are a little out of Intel’s usual product line, so they’ll probably opt to partner up with a fitness company like Nike to handle sales. The devices are expected to arrive at retailers this year – would you consider buying a pair? Answer the poll below!


Email me feedback and suggestions!

Images taken from Boston Scientific and PCMag


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