The Apple AirPods 3 could come with a nifty new feature for fitness fans, according to a paper discovered on the Apple Machine Learning Research website (opens in new tab) by My Healthy Apple (opens in new tab).
Apple's researchers found that "wearable headphones" could pick up the sound of participants' breathing using the devices' built-in microphones.
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As well as allowing AirPods users to track their respiratory rate during exercise, the paper suggests that this feature could be a "cost-effective method of tracking disease progression and cardio-respiratory fitness over time" – without the need for obvious medical monitoring equipment.
The paper doesn't specify which headphones the researchers used in the study – but you can almost be certain that Apple wanted to see how this feature would work with the AirPods, AirPods Pro, and AirPods Max.
As the feature seems to make use of the microphones already built into the headphones in the study, it's possible that respiratory tracking could come to one of the existing AirPods models via a firmware update.
Equally, we're expecting to see the Apple AirPods 3 – the follow-up to the 2019 AirPods – quite soon, and the ability to monitor your breathing could be one of their headline features. In fact, some outlets are banking on a September release date for the wireless earbuds, which are rumored to be launching alongside the iPhone 13.
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Respiratory tracking is just the latest in a line of rumored biometric features that are said to be launching with the AirPods 3.
Last year we heard how future AirPods will use the power of light to monitor our health. Ambient light sensors – like those found on the Apple Watch 6 – could be used to measure blood oxygen levels (though we imagine it's easier to get an accurate reading from someone's wrist than their... earlobe?).
We've also heard rumors that the AirPods 3 will come with built-in accelerometers like the AirPods Pro, which could be used to monitor your movements as you wear them.
According to an Apple patent, the true wireless earbuds could then be used with an iPhone to give you feedback on your performance as you workout. This could be particularly useful for exercises like yoga, with the AirPods providing realtime feedback on a user's head tilts, poses, and stretches. We've also heard that the AirPods 3 will launch with Apple Fitness Plus integration, which would make sense if they do come with these clever sensors.
As with any rumor, it's important to take these claims with a pinch of salt; after all, patents don't always translate into actual devices you can buy, and the AirPods 3 haven't even been confirmed by Apple yet.
Still, the idea of a pair of AirPods that can check your breathing rate, monitor your blood oxygen levels, and coach you through your workouts isn't totally far-fetched. They would certainly fit into Apple's existing wellness ecosystem (which includes the Apple Watch 6 and the Fitness Plus app) very neatly indeed.
What's less certain, is whether these premium features would come to the AirPods 3 specifically, which are expected to replace the entry-level 2019 AirPods. We're not convinced that Apple wouldn't save biometric monitoring for a new pair of AirPods Pro – perhaps the so-called AirPods Pro 2, which are rumored to be launching in 2022, and will probably be more expensive than the AirPods 3.