Measuring a pulse with infrared light

The next time you’re unfortunate enough to make your way to a hospital, emergency room, or urgent care clinic, you’ll be asked to attach a small pulse monitor to your finger. The device the nurses clip on to one of your remaining digits is called a photoplethysmographic sensor, and basically it is able to read your pulse through reflected light. In the search to find out how these devices actually work, [Raj] sent in a great tutorial covering the theory behind photoplethysmographicy, and also built a simple device to detect a pulse without using a microcontroller.

These photoplethysmographic sensors operate by shining light into someone’s flesh – usually a finger or ear lobe – and recording the light reflected back to the source. The volume of blood in the finger will have an effect on the amount of light reflected back, and makes for a perfect way to automatically measure someone’s heart rate.

To build his device, [Raj] used a TCRT1000 reflective optical sensor. Inside this sensor is an infrared LED and a phototransistor. Of course with a finger over the sensor there is a ton of noise both from ambient light and the base rate of reflected light from a piece of flesh. [Raj] filtered this out, leaving only the small variations in the amount of reflected light, thus creating a very simple – and very inexpensive – electronic pulse meter.

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