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DJ meets gym coach with app that keys songs to heart rate

Prototype setup includes earbuds that measure both acceleration and heart beat to calculate how hard you're working, and an app that grabs the best songs to keep you at your target heart rate.

Your smartphone could soon become a combination personal trainer and DJ.

MusicalHeart uses three algorithms to determine heart rate, activity level, and context. ACM SenSys 2012

Thanks to headphones that can measure your heart rate and acceleration, and a smartphone app that can identify which songs on your phone will help you reach your target heart rate, you won't have to guess which playlist best suits your next jog.

So say researchers out of the University of Virginia, who completed their initial prototype of this setup in April and plan to showcase their latest iteration at the 10th ACM Conference on Embedded Networked Sensing Systems in Toronto next month.

According to their report, the system accomplishes several feats more or less at once -- first, it measures heart rate through earbuds instead of those uncomfortable chest straps; it also combines heart rate with acceleration metrics to gauge exertion level; and finally, it determines which songs in a library will help the user reach or maintain his or her desired heart rate.

The system is still in development, but the researchers have tested it on 37 participants (grad student Shahriar Nirjon says it was hard to find a lot of people willing to run for an hour bogged down with a variety of physiological sensors).

So far, they report that the headphones got a pretty good reading -- though not perfect -- on heart rate, with 75 percent to 85 percent accuracy and an average error of 7.5 beats per minute. They also found that the app, which they call MusicalHeart, helped users hit their target heart rate almost 90 percent of the time and actually improved its performance over time based on how each user's heart rate responded to specific songs in the past.

Though this sounds like an exercise tool, there's no reason MusicalHeart couldn't help one relax or meditate as well. Just change the target heart rate accordingly and the songs could presumably help calm you down.

It's tough to get too excited about a product that's still being tweaked and has yet to be priced, but if it works, I'd be lying if I said I didn't want to demo it.