Google taps your phone cameras to measure your heart rate

Cherlynn Low
·Reviews Editor
·3-min read

Like many of us, Google is getting more interested in our health. The company is announcing today new features that will allow those without wearable sensors to get a read on their respiratory and heart rates. Starting next month, Pixel owners will be able to use their phone cameras to measure their pulse and breath rates via Google Fit. The company said it plans to expand to more Android devices over time, too.

When the feature becomes available on your phone, you can open the Fit app to take your measurements by tapping the new cards on the home page. Google is guessing your rate of breath by looking at the movement of your chest, so it鈥檒l need to see your torso. Meanwhile, it uses tiny changes in color under your skin to calculate your heart rate, and you鈥檒l have to place your finger on the rear camera for this. The Fit app will guide you through how to frame yourself using the front camera for respiratory rates, and it鈥檚 not yet clear how well this will work. If you鈥檙e wearing baggy clothes, will the system still be able to tell if you鈥檙e breathing?

You鈥檒l also have to hold your phone up for about 30 seconds for it to capture your respiratory rate, which is longer than it sounds. Plus, this implementation also means you won鈥檛 be relying on this feature to keep tabs on your pulse while you鈥檙e working out, unless you plan to keep holding your phone and looking at the screen while you run or dance. Still, it鈥檚 nice for people without fitness trackers to have a way to get these metrics when they want.

Google Fit respiratory rate measure process GIF
Google Fit respiratory rate measure process GIF

If this method of heart rate detection sounds familiar, you might be thinking of Samsung鈥檚 Galaxy S5, which had a separate sensor below the camera. But apps that let you use your phone to measure your pulse have been around since at least 2014, so this isn鈥檛 exactly a novel concept. But because Google is the software titan that it is, it offers some benefits. In addition to having completed initial clinical trials and validations to ensure the accuracy of its products, Google also made an effort to ensure its computer vision-reliant method would work on all skin tones, ages and lighting conditions.

You鈥檒l also be able to see your pulse and breath metrics alongside your other stats in the Fit app. The company hasn鈥檛 shared any guidelines on minimum camera specs to use this feature (which for now makes sense since only Pixel phones are supported at the moment). But eventually, Google may be able to reach a wider audience than most if it鈥檚 able to bring this to devices with less-sharp cameras or running Android Go, for example.

For those concerned about their privacy, Google is performing these calculations on-device and you can choose to save the resulting measurements to Fit. You can also delete them at any point from your account settings. Bear in mind that these new features haven鈥檛 received FDA clearance and weren鈥檛 designed for medical diagnosis or to evaluate medical conditions, too.