- Google has developed a way to use a smartphone camera to measure heart rate and respiratory rate.
- The new feature is rolling out to select smartphone users in March.
- It’s a sign that more is coming out of Google’s products and its secretive health team.
- Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.
Google is finding new ways to play doctor, and its latest tool is the camera on your smartphone.
The Google Health team has developed a way to use Google’s Pixel smartphone camera to measure heart rate and respiratory rate, and says it can do so with clinical-grade accuracy.
For respiratory rate, or the number of breaths you take per minute, users will need to prop their phone against something and point it at their chest for an accurate reading. For heart rate, they can press a finger against the camera, which detects subtle color changes in the skin caused by blood flow. The features work with Google’s fitness platform, Google Fit and, for now, Pixel smartphones starting sometime in early March.
Google’s foray into camera sensors is happening at a time when companies like Amazon and Apple are diving deeper into healthcare and remote monitoring technology. But it marks a departure from the type of health tracking done by wearable devices such as the Apple Watch, which are capable of measuring heart rate and breathing rate.
Google already plays in the wearables space by licensing software to smartwatch makers, but it has a tiny silver of the market. In January, it closed a deal to acquire Fitbit – an indication it plans to pursue wearables much more aggressively.
However, the new sensors developed by the Health team play to Google’s existing strength, which is the smartphone. Android accounts for around 85% of global smartphone shipments, according to IDC data.
Google’s sensors are in the early days
For now, Google’s sensors don’t work continuously to measure heart and respiratory rates.
Under the current design, users have to touch the camera to get a reading, so a runner might need to stop to check heart rate mid-run rather than have it captured throughout the workout session.
Google said the low adoption of wearables — only 18% of consumers use them, per Accenture — is a good reason to pursue the idea of using phones for health data instead.
“Equity is an important part of Google’s mission and it turns out that relatively few people in the US, let alone the world, actually have wearables,” said Jack Po, product manager at Google, during a press briefing. “So one of the things we focused on was to get it on the most ubiquitous device available.”
Google said it’s completed initial clinical validation for both technologies, which it claims to be as accurate as FDA-approved devices. The findings are under review for a journal publication.
The algorithms for respiratory patterns work with both healthy and non-healthy populations, Google said. Meanwhile, heart rate accuracy was tested across a range of skin tones, and Google claims to be accurate within 2% across all pigmentations.
While Google wants to expand the feature to more smartphones beyond the Pixel, it says it’s focused on Android right now. That leaves it exclusive to a small pool of users – Google’s Pixel has just 2.2% of the smartphone market in the US, and an even smaller percentage globally, according to Statcounter data. Google did not comment on whether it will roll out the camera feature to iPhone users down the line.
What we don’t yet know is how these features will play into Google’s plans for Fitbit. Apple claims more than half of the smartwatch market, and healthcare is one of its biggest opportunities between its health and research features, a 2019 report by Morgan Stanley found. By comparison, Google’s camera tools are nascent, and the Google Fit team isn’t sure how it will work with the newly acquired Fitbit, the company said in a call with reporters on Wednesday.
“It’s still very early but we’re working with them very closely to figure out how we align our different efforts,” said Shwetak Patel, director of health technologies at Google Health, on working with the Fitbit team.
A sign of more to come for Google Health
In 2020, employees told Insider that Google’s secretive health division, led by Dr. David Feinberg, was struggling to define itself. Its work with Google Fit is a sign of more to come as the health team divides its efforts between work in the healthcare industry and on Google’s own products.
It’s working with YouTube, Google Maps, Google Cloud, and Google Search on health-related content, too. Google Maps can display which physicians are available for virtual care, while Google.com has been propagating mental health screeners, novel coronavirus information, and the like according to particular search terms.
Patel’s team is focused on unlocking the potential of everyday smart devices, including home products in the Google ecosystem as well as smartphones, he said. It’s currently exploring other ways to measure heart rate, like detecting subtle color changes in the face, too.