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Future Apple Watch could monitor muscle movements using EMG sensors

Apple is continuing to look into how to improve its wearable devices, including using precise location and orientation data to adjust how audio is delivered, and to better utilize biometric sensors within the Watch, AirPods or similar devices by using EMG sensors to measure muscle movements.

Apple is continuing to develop systems to utilize wearable devices, with a pair of new patents covering the integration of sensors for the wrist and ears. The patents cover methods for precisely determining the position of a user's wrist device, and altering sound output to match the orientation of that user's earbuds.

The first patent, US No 10,478,099, details "systems and methods for determining axial orientation and location of a user's wrist" using sensor on the device or a connected strap.

"A user's mobile device may not always be readily accessible," says the patent. "For instance, when a mobile device receives a phone call, the device may be in a user's bag or pocket, and the user may be walking, driving, carrying something, or involved in other activity that can make it inconvenient or impossible for the user to reach into the bag or pocket to find the device."

Detail from an Apple patent covering wrist detection using a device or bands

Apple has recently filed a separate patent detailing the use of Apple Watch bands with wireless antennas.

The company says that this new wrist orientation patent addresses this by potentially altering where and how information is relayed to the user.

"A wearable device can assist with accessibility of information from the mobile device," it says. "In some examples, the user's movements can lead to frequent changes in the configuration and/or orientation of the wearable device relative to the user's wrist."

Depending on the implementation, this could include the use of electromyography (EMG) sensors to measure electrical signals in the skin, allowing it to determine muscle activity. Strain gauges could also be used to sense alterations in the shape, size, and physical properties of a wrist, so as to measure tension in a user's grip.

Aside from determining position and muscle movements, the data could be employed in a variety of ways, such as providing analysis and feedback for a user's exercise performance, hydration detection to keep EMG sensors working optimally, user identification, or the monitoring for gestures to control the functions of a connected app.

Detail from an Apple patent regarding using wearables to control audio
Detail from an Apple patent regarding using wearables to control audio

The second patent, US No. 10,484,783, concerns the use of "Earbuds with compliant member" as a way to house biometric sensors.

"Portable electronic device users have shown increasing interest in biometric tracking," explains the patent. "Biometric sensors often need to be in close or even direct contact with the skin to properly measure and track biometric parameters along the lines of heart rate, VO.sub.2, and core temperature."

"Requiring a user to place a sensor in direct contact with the skin to track these types of biometric data can be overly burdensome," it continues, "making adoption of the biometric tracking more difficult. Consequently, mechanisms for unobtrusively measuring biometric parameters are highly desirable."

It describes an audio device — it doesn't state AirPods directly but the descriptions fit those — which has an accompanying sensor system.

"[The] device housing having a size and shape suitable for at least partial insertion into an ear of a user," says the patent, "...and including a sensing surface arranged along an exterior surface of the device housing."

Apple's system includes a "processor configured to determine an orientation of the device housing within the ear of a user" and then it adjust the speaker to match that orientation.

Each of the seven inventors credited on the earbuds patent — such as Phillip Qian and Edward Siahaan — have multiple previous related filings to do with earbuds, including ones regarding internal support components for eartips, and audio devices with biometric sensing.

Detail from Apple patent regarding the use of earbuds with biometric sensors
Detail from Apple patent regarding the use of earbuds with biometric sensors

The earbuds patent is also credited to Christopher J. Stringer, a veteran Apple designer who left the company in April 2017 after 21 years.

The two inventors on the wrist orientation patent, Siddharth Nangia and Jason Lor, have together filed three previous patents to do with electronic devices.