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Touch-based blood pressure readings via iPhone and Apple Watch might one day be a thing

Blood Pressure iPhone Watch

The commentariat is still generally positive about Apple’s unveiling last week of the newest model of Apple Watch, which comes packed with new and potentially life-saving health features. Analyst Ben Thompson, in today’s edition of his Stratechery newsletter, writes that Apple is showing us via innovations in products like the watch that “middle age ain’t so bad.” And that the new feature in the watch which lets you take an electrocardiogram might underscore to some people how Apple is starting to look like “a tech company that actually cares about you.”

Apple already got FDA clearance to use the watch for that purpose. But a new report in the Wall Street Journal over the weekend suggests blood pressure readings might eventually be possible via an even more simple process for both Apple Watch and iPhone users — long-pressing on the display.

Researchers at Michigan State University have developed a proof-of-concept iPhone app that measures blood pressure by using the display’s 3D Touch “peek-and-pop” feature.

By 2020, Michigan State electrical and computer engineering professor Ramakrishna Mukkamala told the WSJ, some three billion people will own smartphones. Many of them also “have high blood pressure and don’t know it,” he adds.

According to the paper, “Recently, a group he led created a way to take blood pressure with a phone, using the same principle as the blood-pressure cuff, which varies pressure on the arm. In a study published in March, the group used a modified smartphone case with two sensors, one that measured blood volume and one that measured applied pressure. Users steadily pressed their fingertips against the case to get a reading. The data was transmitted via Bluetooth to an app, which calculated blood pressure and displayed it.”

This month, however, a study in which Dr. Mukkamala participated showed that same method of long-pressing can be applied to sensors already built into phones that help users take selfies and provide for 3D Touch. “The group has developed an iPhone app that guides fingertip placement and calculates blood pressure,” the WSJ continues. “Comparing the results against a traditional blood-pressure cuff, the app was less accurate than the arm cuff. But Dr. Mukkamala says it was comparable to a finger cuff, a device that’s been cleared by the FDA for measuring arm blood pressure but used primarily so far in research.”

Dr. Mukkamala hopes to market the touch-based blood pressure app and make it available sometime next year, though some more work and testing is still needed before it’s approved. Still, the possibilities this opens up offers yet another reminder of the new era Apple is entering with its watch, now being firmly positioned as, in the words of Apple COO Jeff Williams, “an intelligent guardian of your health.”

Andy is a reporter in Memphis who also contributes to outlets like Fast Company and The Guardian. When he’s not writing about technology, he can be found hunched protectively over his burgeoning collection of vinyl, as well as nursing his Whovianism and bingeing on a variety of TV shows you probably don’t like.

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