Vital Signs Blog

Blog: Missing Apple Watch sensors found, but mystery continues

There's a geek ritual surrounding every new device release: first, the unveiling; second, the disassembling. The Apple Watch is no different—iFixit, a gadget-head community, has “torn down” the watch into its constituent parts—and found a pulse oximeter.

For healthcare watchers, this solves one mystery and creates another. For some time, speculation ran high about what exactly Apple was up to with the Watch. The company had hired scads of top-flight medical-device talent, making it more than a bit odd that it unveiled a product with very basic fitness monitoring capabilities.

The discovery of the pulse oximeter solves that mystery—it appears sophisticated sensors are part of the Watch. The new mystery is: Why isn't it activated?

When the device was unveiled, a Wall Street Journal report said that Apple's reluctance to include sophisticated, medical-grade sensors centered around regulatory challenges (the Food and Drug Administration would need to approve medical indications), and technical problems (such sensors would drain battery life very quickly).

The discovery of an unactivated pulse oximeter would seem to point more toward regulatory problems than to technical ones, though it doesn't completely solve the mystery.

9To5Mac, an Apple-focused website, speculates that the company is waiting for FDA approval of the watch's pulse oximetry capabilities. “If that turns out to be true, then it's possible that a software update could later enable the feature for existing first-gen Apple Watch owners,” the site suggests.

9To5 Mac also theorizes that the company may wait until the Apple Watch's second- or third-generation version to introduce pulse oximetry capabilities. But, if so, why include the pulse oximeter in the original device?

Instead of a retreat, this discovery seems to signal Apple's unabated march into healthcare.


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