Reliability Check: Consumer And Research-Grade Wrist-Worn Heart Rate Monitors

Wearables are ubiquitous in today’s society. Such devices have evolved in their capabilities from step counters to devices that measure calories burnt, sleep, and heart rate. It’s pretty common to meet people using a wearable or two to track their fitness goals. However, a big question remains unanswered. How accurate are these wearable devices? Researchers from the Big Ideas Lab evaluated a group of wearables to assess their accuracy in measuring heart rate.

Unlike other studies with similar intentions, the Big Ideas Lab specifically wanted to address whether skin color had an effect on the accuracy of the heart rate measurements, and an FDA-cleared Bittium Faros 180 electrocardiogram was used as the benchmark. Overall, the researchers found that there was no difference in accuracy across skin tones, meaning that the same wearable will measure heart rate on a darker skin-toned individual the same as it would on a lighter skin-toned. Phew!

However, that may be the only good news for those wanting to use their wearable to accurately monitor their heart rate. The researchers found the overall accuracy of the devices relative to ECG was a bit variable with average errors of 7.2 beats per minute (BPM) in the consumer-grade wearables and 13.9 BPM in the research-grade wearables at rest. During activity, errors in the consumer-grade wearables climbed to an average of 10.2 BPM and 15.9 in the research-grade wearables. It’s interesting to see that the research-grade devices actually performed worse than the consumer devices.

And there’s a silver lining if you’re an Apple user. The Apple Watch performed consistently better than all other devices with mean errors between 4-5 BPM during rest and during activity, unless you’re breathing deeply, which threw the Apple for a loop.

So, it seems as if wrist-worn heart rate monitors still have some work to do where accuracy is concerned. Although skin tone isn’t a worry, they all become less accurate when the subject is moving around.

If you’d like to try your own hand with fitness trackers, have a look at this completely open project, or go for the gold standard with a wearable DIY ECG.

Pavlok Gets A Literally Shocking Teardown

Apparently, there is a wrist-mounted device that delivers electric shocks to the wearer when it receives the appropriate command over Bluetooth. No, it’s not part of some kind of house arrest program. If you can believe it, the gadget is actually intended to help break bad habits or wake up exceptionally deep sleepers. We don’t know which of those problems [Becky Stern] has, but we’re glad to see she decided to take hers apart before the 21st century self-flagellation started.

Called the Pavlok and available for $180 USD from various online retailers, the device looks like a chunky fitness tracker. But in place of the screen that would show you how many steps you’ve taken or your current heart rate, there’s a lighting bolt button that you can press when you want to shock yourself. With the smartphone application, you can control the device remotely with a handy desktop widget that allows you to select the intensity of the shock. No, we aren’t making any of this up. Check out the video after the break to see it in action.

When [Becky] tried to take the Pavlok apart, she found that it was nearly impossible to handle it without inadvertently triggering a shock. So until she could get the case open and physically disconnect the battery, all she could do was turn the intensity down in the application and work through the occasional jolts from the device. We can only hope that more devices don’t adopt a similar sense of self-preservation.

Once inside she found mainly the same kind of hardware you’d expect in a standard, non-masochistic, fitness wearable. There’s a nRF52832 Bluetooth SoC, a MMA8451Q accelerometer, a PCF85063A I2C RTC, and a FXAS21002C gyroscope. What you’re somewhat less likely to find inside your FitBit however is the LPR6235 coupled inductor and beefy capacitors which are used to build up a high-voltage charge from the standard 3.7 V LiPo battery.

We’ve been very interested in the recent projects which are creating custom firmwares for commercially available fitness wearables, as it could be an express route to a hacker-friendly smartwatch. While the Pavlok has some compelling hardware, and the programming header [Becky] identified looks interesting, we don’t like the idea of being one misplaced if statement away from riding the lightning.

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Pulling Display Data Off Of A Fitness Tracker

[Aaron Christophel] writes in with yet another clever hack for his D6 Fitness Tracker. Using OpenOCD and Pygame, he shows how you can pull data right off the tracker’s screen and sent it to the computer.

This one appealed to us for its brevity. First [Aaron] launches the OpenOCD server which connects to the D6. Then, a short Python script connects to the server through telnet, reads the screen data, and uses a look-up table to turn the data into a duplicate display on the PC screen. If you’re more of a visual learner, there’s a demonstration video after the break.

The D6 is a popular fitness tracker that’s often re-branded and sold at a very low cost. [Aaron] is a big fan of these Nordic nRF52 powered devices, and we’ve covered some of his hacks before. If you’d like to learn more about these interesting little devices there’s quite a write-up on their inner-workings here.

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OTA Flash Tool Makes Fitness Tracker Hacking More Accessible

Over the last several months, [Aaron Christophel] has been working on creating a custom firmware for cheap fitness trackers. His current target is the “D6 Tracker” from a company called MPOW, which can be had for as little as $7 USD. The ultimate goal is to make it so anyone will be able to write their own custom firmware for this gadget using the Arduino IDE, and with the release of his new Android application that allows wirelessly flashing the device’s firmware, it seems like he’s very close to realizing that dream.

Previously, [Aaron] had to crack open the trackers and physically connect a programmer to update the firmware on the NRF52832-based devices. That might not be a big deal for the accomplished hardware hacker, but it’s a bit of a hard sell for somebody who just wants to see their own Arduino code running on it. But with this new tool, he’s made it so you can easily switch back and forth between custom and original firmware on the D6 without even having to take it off your wrist.

After the break, you can see the video that [Aaron] has put together which talks about the process of flashing a new firmware image. It’s all very straightforward: you simply pick the device from the list of detected BLE devices, the application puts the tracker into bootloader mode, and then you select the DFU file you want to flash.

There are a couple of ready-made firmwares you can put on the D6 right now, but where’s the fun in that? [Aaron] has put together a customized version of the Arduino IDE that provides everything you need to start writing and flashing your own firmware. If you’ve ever dreamed about creating a wearable device that works exactly the way you want, it’s hard to imagine a cheaper or easier way to get in on the action.

When we last heard from [Aaron] earlier this year, he was working on the IWOWN I6HRC tracker. But it looks like the availability of those devices has since dried up. So if you’re going to try your hand at hacking the MPOW D6, it might be wise to buy a few now while they’re still cheap and easy to find.

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Fitness Trackers Don’t Have To Be Proprietary

Fitness trackers have become a popular piece of consumer electronic equipment, with a range of models from a variety of manufacturers. Many of these commercial offerings, however, leave the consumer with the prospect of their data being drawn off to a cloud server and sold to the highest bidder, trading convenience for a loss of privacy. If only there were a fitness tracker offering complete control!

The OpenHAK is an open-source fitness tracker in a 3D printed wristwatch case that measures your heart rate and counts your steps, offering the resultant data for you to collect via Bluetooth. At its heart is a Sparkfun Simblee module, with heart rate sensing through a Maxim MAX30101 and step counting .by a Bocsh BMI160. It’s designed for expandability from the start with a header bringing out useful interface lines. In the prototype, they’ve used this to support a small OLED display. The result is a fitness tracker watch that may not match some of the well-known proprietary devices, but which remains completely open and probably costs a lot less too.

We’ve seen quite a few fitness tracker apps over the years, including a conversion to an EEG, and custom firmware for some commercial trackers.

Custom Firmware For Cheap Fitness Trackers

The concept of wearable hardware is an enticing one, but it can be difficult to tackle for the first-time maker. While many of us are experienced at designing PCBs and soldering up arcane gadgets, interfacing with the soft and fleshy human form can present unforeseen difficulties. There’s a way around that, of course – leveraging an existing platform where someone else has already done the work. That’s precisely what [Aaron Christophel] has done, by reverse engineering and developing custom firmware for cheap fitness trackers (Google Translate).

The first part of [Aaron]’s work consisted of research and disassembly. After purchasing a wide variety of fitness trackers online, he eventually came across his favored unit, the Tracker I6HRC by IWOWNFIT. This features an NRF52832 microcontroller, as well as an IPS display, some Flash storage, and a vibration motor. Connectivity is handled over Bluetooth Low Energy. [Aaron] particularly rates it for the well-made case that can be disassembled without damage, and the spare USB 2.0 pads on the board which can be used to program the device over the SWD interface.

[Aaron] has developed an Arduino-compatible firmware which is discussed further in a forum post.  Most of the peripherals on board have been explored, and reducing power consumption is a current area of active development.

Firmware hacks are always fun – have you considered giving your TV a custom boot screen? Have a FitBit original instead of the clone? There’s a hack for that too.

[Thanks to Jim for the tip!]

Hacking A Fitness Tracker

When [rbaron] started a new job, he got a goodie bag. The contents included a cheap fitness tracker bracelet that used Bluetooth LE. Since this is Hackaday, you can probably guess what happened next: hacking ensued.

For something cheap enough to give away, [rbaron] claims it cost $10, the device has quite a bit in it. In the very tiny package, there is an OLED display, a battery, a vibration motor, and a Nordic 32-bit ARM with BLE. The FCC ID was key to identifying the device. Opening the case, which was glued down, was pretty difficult, but doable with a hair dryer and a knife.

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