Chest strap heart rate monitors are uncomfortable and annoying. HRM watches, like the MIO Alpha, have a lot of potential, but they still lose contact frequently. Valencell is going in a different direction, building a heart rate sensor into something most of us are already wearing: our headphones.
The sensor technology is called PerformTek Precision Biometrics, and it will be licensed out to many manufacturers starting this spring. It uses similar technology to the MIO Alpha, in that it has a built-in oximeter that measures your heart rate by detecting the tiny changes in your skin colour that coincide with your pulse. The claims it makes, though, are somewhat bolder. Valencell says that PerformTek is capable of measuring not only your heart rate, but also distance, speed, cadence, VO2 max and calories burned. It's the VO2 max bit that should raise your eyebrows.
VO2 max is considered the best way to measure your efficiency as you exercise. Typically, VO2 max is tested by wearing a face mask that attaches to a large machine which measures the amount of oxygen you consume as you run like hell on a treadmill. While Valencell admits that that test is the gold standard and will get you the best results, it claims that PerformTek's measurements would be within a 7 per cent margin of error, which would be pretty impressive if it bears out.
Valencell sent me a prototype to use, which I tested on a couple runs along with a few other heart rate monitors. I was extremely impressed. Because your head doesn't shake around very much, the PerformTek never once lost contact, and its accuracy was at least as good as the chest strap I tested it against. Blood circulation to your head is excellent (hopefully), and the skin in your ear is very thin, which helps the sensor do its thing. Best of all, the earbuds looked and felt just like normal in-ear earbuds.
The PerformTek sensors will make their debut in a new pair of Bluetooth earbuds from iRiver called the iRiver ON (pictured). We don't have many details on them at this point, but it sounds like they will work with certain apps for iOS and Android. They should be available sometime in the spring (no word on pricing yet). Hopefully, these will be the first of many manufacturers that will licence this technology. If you could put those sensors into a pair of headphones that sounded great, you'd have something pretty killer. [Valencell and iRiver]