Looks Like the Apple Watch Series 6 Could Sport a Blood Oxygen Sensor

Photo: Victoria Song/Gizmodo
Photo: Victoria Song/Gizmodo

While we know many of the new features that are coming to the Apple Watch Series 6 via WatchOS 7, it’s been relatively quiet on what hardware changes Apple might make. However, it now looks like the Series 6 might be the first Apple Watch to include a blood oxygen sensor.

The report about the blood oxygen sensor comes via Digitimes, which also noted that Apple has struck a deal with ASE Technology, a Taiwan-based supplier, to build the Series 6. This lines up neatly with 9to5 Mac discovering blood oxygen detection features in snippets of iOS 14 code a few months ago. That said, Apple made zero mention of blood oxygen monitoring when it previewed WatchOS 7 at WWDC — though it wouldn’t be a surprise if it was saving hardware reveals for its annual September event. After all, it didn’t hint at the LTPO display and always-on screen for the Series 5 at WWDC last year either.

Blood oxygen monitoring, or pulse oximetry, is a bit of a buzzword right now due to the global pandemic. In a nutshell, a healthy reading is usually between 95-100 per cent, with values under 90 per cent considered to be below normal. Low readings may be an indication of respiratory or cardiovascular issues — a major reason why wearables makers see SpO2 sensors as a potential way to diagnose sleep apnea. (Any diagnostic function, however, would require FDA clearance.) It’s also why pulse oximeters have been flying off shelves as people view them as a way to predict if they may have covid-19. (To be clear, the American Lung Association does not endorse this behaviour.)

If this rumour does pan out, a big question will be whether blood oxygen monitoring is exclusive to Series 6. Back when the original Apple Watch launched in 2015, teardowns revealed the heart rate monitor could potentially double as a pulse oximeter — though Apple kept mum on the subject. However, most other wearables opt to use SpO2 sensors for blood oxygen monitoring, not the green-light PPG sensors. That, plus the Digitimes report claiming a blood oxygen-specific sensor may be added to Series 6, hints that this might be a Series 6 exclusive.

Blood oxygen monitoring isn’t new to the wearables space. Fitbit first introduced SpO2 sensors way back in 2017 on the Ionic, though it took until this year for it to introduce its Estimated Oxygen Variation metric. Garmin has also had SpO2 sensors on several of its smartwatches for years now, so it’s not as if Apple is exactly leading the charge here. Then again, every wearable also had PPG sensors when Apple showed everyone up with the Series 4 by adding FDA-cleared ECG capability. There’s a chance that Apple isn’t playing catchup, so much as biding its time to whip out a more advanced type of blood oxygen monitoring.

We’ll have to wait until Apple makes its big flashy announcement later this fall to get definitive answers. In the meantime, you’ll have to settle for the public beta of WatchOS 7… whenever it is that drops.