Blood oxygen saturation naturally fluctuates throughout the day, but large variations can be linked to health issues. For example, 95-100 percent oxygen in the blood is considered normal, but a drop below that percentage could be a sign of a serious respiratory or cardiac problem.
At the center of Apple’s new feature is a new health notification based on blood oxygen levels – when Apple Watch blood oxygen saturation drops below a certain threshold, the wearer is alerted, just like existing heart rate notifications.
Apple holds patents for blood oxygen monitoring, and early prototypes of the first Apple Watch featured sensors that measured blood oxygen monitoring among other biometrics, but many of these functions never made it into the final product because of consistency issues.
When the original Apple Watch was released back in 2015, iFixit actually discovered that Apple’s heart sensors have the capability to monitor blood oxygen levels, but Apple has never activated it.
It remains to be seen whether the latest incarnation of the feature will rely on new hardware in the Apple Watch Series 6 or if it will come as a software update as part of watchOS 7, both of which are expected to arrive this year. Rumors persist that sleep tracking will also be included in the next Apple Watch model.
Other smartwatch and fitness tracker makers including Google-owned Fitbit already offer blood oxygen monitoring features in some of their devices, so Apple is playing catch-up in this regard, but that could mean the company has a more advanced implementation of the feature in the works.