Like many of us, Google cares more about our health. The company today announced new features that will allow people without wearable sensors to read their breathing and heart rates. Starting next month, Pixel owners will be able to use their phone cameras to measure their heart rate and breathing rates through Google Fit. The company plans to expand to more Android devices over time.
If the feature is available on your phone, you can open the Fit app to take your measurements by tapping the new cards on the home screen. Google estimates your breathing rate based on the movement of your chest so you need to see your upper body. Meanwhile, tiny changes in color under your skin are used to calculate your heart rate. To do this, you need to put your finger on the rear view camera. The Fit app guides you through the display of the breathing rate using the front camera. It is not yet clear how well this will work. If you wear loose clothing, can the system still tell if you are breathing?
You also need to hold your phone up for about 30 seconds for it to track your breathing rate, which is longer than it sounds. Also, this implementation means you won’t rely on this feature to keep an eye on your heart rate while exercising unless you want to hold your phone and look at the screen while you’re running or dancing. Even so, it’s nice for people without a fitness tracker to get these metrics when they want.
If this method of heart rate detection sounds familiar, you might think of the Samsung Galaxy S5 which had a separate sensor under the camera. However, apps that let you measure your heart rate with your phone have been around since at least 2014, so this isn’t a new concept. But because Google is the software titan it is, it offers some advantages. In addition to completing initial clinical studies and validations to ensure the accuracy of its products, Google has worked hard to ensure that its computational method works for all skin tones, ages, and lighting conditions.
In the Fit app, you can view your heart rate and breath data in addition to your other statistics. The company has not published guidelines on minimum camera specifications for using this feature (which makes sense at this point as only Pixel phones are currently supported). However, Google may be able to reach a wider audience than most if it can be broadcast to devices with less sharp cameras or with Android Go, for example.
For those concerned about their privacy, Google will do these calculations on the device and you can save the resulting measurements in Fit. You can also delete them from your account settings at any time. Note that these new features have not received FDA approval and are not designed for medical diagnosis or medical evaluation.