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Blood pressure-sensing earbuds are coming in 2020

Could the future of fitness AirPod competitors be stress management? Valencell's tech is ready for heart-rate sensing earbuds coming this year.

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Valencell's blood-pressure-sensing earbud tech prototype, and its phone app.

Scott Stein/CNET
This story is part of CES 2020, our complete coverage of the showroom floor and the hottest new tech gadgets around.

There's one big health measurement that's really important, yet keeps eluding wearable tech: blood pressure. I measure my own blood pressure sometimes -- I have high blood pressure. I tried Omron's FDA-cleared inflatable-cuff blood pressure watch, HeartGuide, last year. But maybe there's another place where blood pressure wearables could work: our ears. According to one company, blood-pressure earbuds are on their way this year and they actually work.

Valencell is a health tech company that makes many of the optical heart-rate sensors that use photoplethysmography, or PPG, to check your pulse in watches, earbuds and even on phones. The company's been working for years on trying to adapt those same sensors to measure blood pressure. Valencell's President Steven LeBoeuf told me about how the ear is by far the best area to measure blood pressure compared to a finger or wrist: The ear has more blood flow and a richer heart rate reading, and ears stay the same distance from your heart (as long as you're not bending over).

I tried out a prototype of Valencell's in-ear bud while sitting in a food court at the Mandalay Bay, an impromptu meeting like all CES meetings in Las Vegas. I used an app that asked for my age, height, weight and gender, and then took a roughly 30-second measurement. Like a blood pressure cuff, the tech needs you to stay still. But the results can show up in a continuous sort of real-time state on the phone, and LeBoeuf says that the tech could be used to continuously monitor blood pressure in ways that a standard cuff couldn't.

Read more: The best fitness gifts in 2020 

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Valencell's blood pressure measurement readings on its prototype phone app.

Scott Stein/CNET

Valencell used over 15,000 datasets from about 5,000 subjects from different ages and demographics, including 25% using blood pressure medication, to develop its blood pressure algorithms, and then clinically tested over 600 measurements from over 130 subjects to get readings that now fall within plus or minus 8mm of mercury degree of error that blood pressure cuffs have. Valencell admits the measurements aren't medical grade yet, and high blood pressure measurements can still be problematic. But Valencell is presenting its findings to the American College of Cardiology this year, with intentions of providing the best blood pressure option in wearables short of an inflating cuff.

The goal is to launch earbuds that use Valencell's new tech as "general wellness" devices, not medical-grade ones. Valencell is already talking to several partners, and sees these earbuds as being a way to screen for high blood pressure, and dovetail with meditation and calmness audio apps. These earbuds would skip the FDA clearance path for now, with a possible goal in the future of pursuing that extra level of approval.

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Trying the prototype bud in my ear (it was a selfie, sorry for the fuzziness).

Scott Stein/CNET

Valencell's releasing evaluation prototype kits on Feb. 2, aiming for companies to start testing and working on their own solutions. LeBoeuf says earbuds measuring blood pressure could arrive in 2020, since the new algorithms can work on older hardware using PPG sensors. Think earbuds that already measure heart rate, or, eventually, new earbuds with this feature built in.

I love the idea of something that can scan for blood pressure on the go, and be easy to carry. I hoped smartwatches would get there, but it hasn't been easy. Valencell's work hasn't cracked making wrist measurements work with optical heart rate sensors: the results vary and aren't strong enough (blood pressure readings require a better flow of heart rate data), and wrists move too much. This might be why Samsung's attempts to study blood pressure on-wrist with the Galaxy Watch Active haven't produced any results yet. Omron's HeartGuide watch uses an inflating wrist cuff, which is traditional blood pressure-sensing tech -- it's bulky, but effective enough to have gotten FDA clearance.

With AirPods and AirPod-alikes now defining wearables in 2020, it seems like a clear move for a Samsung or Apple, or other companies, to pursue next. Or, anyone else. It might be that smartwatches aren't the best place for blood pressure testing... but earbuds are.

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The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.