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Apple studies the potential of AirPods as a health device


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Looking at ways to turn AirPods into a health device, including improving hearing, body temperature reading and posture monitoring, according to documents reviewed by the Wall Street Journal and people familiar with the plans.

The plans further demonstrate Apple’s ambition to add health and wellness features to devices beyond the Apple Watch, where most of the company’s health functions exist today. Apple is also working on technology that aims to use iPhones to help diagnose depression and cognitive decline, the Journal reported last month.

It is not clear whether Apple is developing new hearing aid features specific to AirPods or whether it wants to market the existing hearing enhancement features of the headphones as hearing aids. AirPods Pro, Apple’s top-of-the-line headphones, already offer features to improve hearing, including “talk boost,” launched last week, which increases the volume and clarity of people in front of the wearer.

The features offered for the AirPods are not expected until next year and may never be rolled out to consumers or the timeline could change, people familiar with the company’s plans have warned.

An Apple spokeswoman declined to comment.

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Apple is already developing prototypes of AirPods to take the core body temperature of wearers inside their ears, according to documents reviewed by the Journal. The thermometer would be the second that Apple could add to its devices, including a new wrist temperature sensor that Apple could include in next year’s version of the Apple Watch, the Journal previously reported.

As for ergonomics, the AirPods would rely on motion sensors in the headphones and alert wearers of sagging and improve their posture, according to the documents and a person familiar with the idea.

Gifting AirPods as hearing aids could significantly expand their reach. Millions of people suffer from hearing loss, many with less severe hearing loss, and choose not to treat it, experts say.

New regulations, which are expected to be completed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration next year, would allow a new class of less expensive hearing aids to be sold directly to consumers to treat mild to moderate hearing loss.

About 28 million Americans have mild hearing loss, but only 5% use a hearing aid, estimates the Johns Hopkins Cochlear Center for Hearing and Public Health. 12 million more suffer from moderate hearing loss, although only 37% of this group use a hearing aid.

Johns Hopkins audiologist Dr Nicholas Reed said Apple’s prospect of future AirPods as over-the-counter hearing aids would be a potential change. He said Apple’s ubiquitous headphones can break the old age stigma associated with traditional hearing aids, which often prevent people from wearing them, and would cost much less than traditional hearing aids.

AirPods may not be suitable for some people with hearing loss because they don’t have a day’s battery life yet. Additionally, Apple has been beaten in the hearing aid market by consumer electronics rival Bose, which sells an FDA-approved hearing aid that consumers can customize on their own.

AirPods dominate the global Bluetooth headset market, generating $ 12.8 billion in revenue in 2020, estimates research firm Strategy Analytics, five times the number of second-largest player Bose.

The range of sensors in the devices, including microphones, an amplifier, and a sophisticated processor, means the AirPods Pro already contain much of the technology needed to help people with mild to moderate hearing loss, experts say.

The hearing aid market is dominated by a handful of companies, and hearing aids can cost thousands of dollars. Cheaper “personal sound amplification products” are available in stores, but their quality is mixed, experts say.

AirPods cannot be marketed as hearing aids today due to federal regulations dating back decades when many hearing aids were unsafe or ineffective. These restrictions require that the devices be sold by licensed hearing care professionals who fit the hearing aids to the wearer.

The FDA is working to complete the safety and efficacy rules required by a 2017 law for a new class of over-the-counter hearing aids that consumers can adjust on their own. The rules should allow companies like Apple, Bose and Samsung to market cheaper hearing aids.

Write to Rolfe Winkler at rolfe.winkler@wsj.com

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