Optical Heart Rate – A Chat With Valencell

I had an interesting chat recently with Valencell. There are no revelations as such but it was good to hear some of the directions the company and the wider market are heading down.

In no particular order here are some of the things we discussed:

Valencell estimated that optical HR sensors for sport are probably sold in the ratio of something like 80:20 for wrist locations vs. other locations. Valencell are stronger in the market for ear-based sensors and the ratio would be different for them. Surprisingly, more like 50:50.

Whilst the ear is not a ‘convenient’ location for me; for oHR it is a technically good location with lots of blood close to the surface. I had some time with the Jabra Pulse Sport a few years ago and the current Jabra model is the Elite Sport. You can see from the Elite Sport, below, that one of the more obvious market trends is for Bluetooth ear buds that are not connected to each other by a wire.

The global market for secondary sales of earbuds (of all varieties, not included in bundled sales) is in the region of 300 million units. Sure, only a small proportion of people who buy those will be interested in biometrics but it will still be a relatively large market.

As well as Jabra there are several other companies playing a role such as Kuai (below, with the triathlon ear buds), Bose, Sony and Samsung. Naturally the likes of Huawei and Huamei/Xiaomi play a role too.

Valencell have somewhat changed their business model in recent years. They have shifted from licensing to selling  prebuilt OHR modules. This has happened relatively recently and relatively quickly; as an example the Suunto Spartan Sport WHR was licensed technology whereas the later Suunto Spartan Trainer WHR and the impending Suunto 3 both use Valencell’s prebuilt BW module.

Valencell have 2 modules

  • BW – Benchmark Wrist (Version BW1.2 and the smaller version BW2.0)
  • BE – Benchmark Ear

You can imagine the obvious benefits to the likes of Suunto being able to buy an already-working module that requires less R&D; significantly less integration effort; and which deliver a faster time-to-market. You can also add to that some value-added capabilities that are also built-in to the Valencell components via a 3-axis accelerometer as summarised nicely in this image; although it has to be said that the watch vendors don’t often leverage these metrics.


We can surmise that one of the trends is therefore to increase the capability of what the sensor can do. Alongside that are perhaps more obvious trends towards: smaller sizes; improved power consumption from hardware and firmware; and increased accuracy. Perhaps also consider that if two sensors (accelerometer+OHR) can be combined into one sensor then the power consumption of that one unit could well be engineered to be lower than that of 2 separate units.

Other trends include what is being measured with the various light sources in the sensors. Valencell now use Infrared light in the ear and green/yellow on the wrist/arm (like the new Scosche Rhythm 24 for March/April 2018), this can be used to determine HR and HRV/RRi (rest) but attention can also be drawn towards measuring blood pressure as well as sleep, CTL/ATL/TSB, and cardiac events. You might hear stories on Wareable.com of Samsung and Apple attempting to use optical sources to assess blood glucose non-invasively – whilst that may well have very significant sporting and medical benefits, both Valencell and other companies I have talked to doubt that it will be possible in the near future. Here is an interesting read on why non-invasive blood glucose is tricky.

I probably knew, but had forgotten, that Valencell also include a Data Quality Indicator in their oHR signal. Essentially indicating how confident the sensor is that it is sending correct data. It might be an interesting way forwards with a Quality Indicator if the sensor could accept rudimentary user inputs like HRmax. Certainly, in my experience, I would have sometimes liked Suunto’s Valencell sensor to know when it is infeasibly high and the same would be true for other vendor’s sensors too.

Valencell + Bioconnected.com

We already know that companies like Scosche, Suunto and Huawei use Valencell components. There are others but Valencell pointedly advised me to keep a look out this year for companies who might revert back to Valencell technology after having tried it themselves. I can put two and two together here and make 5 but we can probably all have a good guess about this one.

One final point was that ‘OHR testing standards’ might emerge in a few months time from the CTA. Those CTA standards might appear at this URL such standards would enable people like you and me  to follow set protocols to see if our HRMs are working properly.

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Interesting, thanks for sharing!
– Any discussion of whether they think Wrist oHR might become reliable one day ?
– Not sure about the “revert back” part as I don’t remember a big player using Valencell initially and then moving to an in-house solution ? I could have seen that for “Mio” (Phillips) with the FR225.