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Cheap sensors enabling new smartphone fitness gadgets

Companies are putting sensors in everything from earbuds to foot pods to track data, giving consumers the ability to keep tabs on their fitness using mobile phones.

Valencell prototype earbuds that monitor biometric data. Valencell

LAS VEGAS--Later this month, runners will be able to pop a set of earbuds into their noggins and do a whole lot more than rock out to their favorite songs.

The new earbuds will monitor a range of biometric data, including heart rate and VO2 max, a key fitness measure for performance athletes, and shoot that information off to their smartphones.

The sensor chips were developed by Valencell, a Raleigh, N.C., startup. It's licensing the technology to earbud makers and the first set will debut later this month, said Valencell founder and chief executive Steven LeBoeuf at the Consumer Electronics Show here. A second earbud maker will launch a model by spring. LeBoeuf declined to name the manufacturers, citing nondisclosure agreements. (A Valencell spokeswoman later corrected LeBoeuf, saying that the company doesn't control the launch dates of partners' products, and noted that the earbuds using the technology are expected in the third quarter of the year.)

Turns out, the ear is one of the best places to collect biometric data. Valencell's technology has been validated by Duke University's Center for Living, according to the company.

"There are only two places (to accurately monitor biometrics), the ear and the rear. And I don't really want to make butt plugs," LeBoeuf said.

Valencell is just one of several tech firms showing health and fitness gadgets here that are taking advantage of breakthroughs in both sensor technology and smartphone connectivity. Sensors get ever smaller and less expensive, lowering barriers to putting them in all sorts of devices. And the ability to connect to an iPhone or Android device means that gadget makers no longer need to build screens into devices, reducing their costs and complexity. That's unleashed a batch of new devices that work with mobile phones consumers already own.

"A lot of it is driven around this," said Travis Bogard, vice president of product management at Jawbone, holding up his iPhone.

Late last year, the company launched Up, a fitness wristband that has sensors that connect to an iPhone app. Flaws in a battery recently forced Jawbone to halt production of Up, though the company expects to bring the $99 gizmo back to market when product testing is complete. Bogard declined to say when he thought that happen.

The company, which also makes Bluetooth headsets and a wireless speaker, jumped into the fitness market as the technology made it possible to track movements and sleep patterns and shoot that data to a mobile device.

"Five years ago, if we tried to build this, I would have had to put a display on it," Bogard said.

Glucose monitoring maker Dexcom is working on putting Ant+, a sports data transfer technology, into its Seven Plus continuous glucose monitor. Cyclists, for example, use Ant+ to grab data from a power meter on a cyclometer.

The Seven Plus monitor, a sensor on a patch that attaches to the abdomen, will go into trials later this year. It uses Ant+ to connect to phones such as the HTC Rhyme to let diabetics continuously check their blood sugar levels throughout the day.

That's important, because swings in blood sugar levels can be dangerous. What's more, the device should simplify life for diabetics, who now carry insulin pumps and glucose monitor in addition to their mobile phones.

"Pretty soon, they're out of pockets," Jorge Valdes, Dexcom's chief technical officer, said on the CES show floor.

Ant+, in fact, is developing into a platform for wirelessly connecting health and fitness sensors to gadgets that can read the data. That's led big companies such as Garmin as well as start-ups such as Wahoo Fitness to develop dongles that attach to iPhones to capture Ant+ data. That way, runners and cyclists can see check their heart rate, speed, and other data on their phones.

Adidas recently launched its miCoach Speed_Cell, a foot pod that can track motion in every direction, unlike Nike+ gadgets. That's useful for soccer and basketball players, for example, who often backpedal or pivot from side to side. The data wirelessly transfers to smartphones, tablets, and computers--no cables needed. And it stores seven hours of data.

"The cool thing is, it's all you need," said Christian DiBenedetto, senior innovation director for the Adidas innovation team.