Apple is trying to turn its smartwatch from a niche gadget into a lifeline to better health by slowly evolving it into a medical device.
In its fourth incarnation, called the Series 4, the Apple Watch will add features that allow it to take high-quality heart readings and detect falls.
Apple CEO Tim Cook has long aimed to emphasize the health- and fitness-tracking abilities of the smartwatch. The original version featured a heart-rate sensor that fed data into fitness and workout apps so they could suggest new goals and offer digital “rewards” for fitness accomplishments.
Two years later, Apple called its watch “the ultimate device for a healthy life,” emphasizing water resistance for swimmers and built-in GPS for tracking runs or cycling workouts.
The latest Apple Watch version unveiled Wednesday is pushing the health envelope even further — in particular by taking electrocardiograms, or EKGs, on the device, a feature given clearance by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Apple said.
The watch will also watch for irregular heartbeats and can detect when the wearer has fallen, the company said.
EKGs are important tests of heart health that typically require a doctor visit. The feature gained an onstage endorsement from Ivor Benjamin, a cardiologist who heads the American Heart Association, who said such real-time data would change the way doctors work.
Apple says the heart data can be shared with doctors through a PDF file, though it’s not yet clear how ready doctors are to receive a possible flood of new EKG data from patients — nor how useful they will find the electronic files.
The watch will use new sensors on the back and on the watch dial. A new app will say whether each reading is normal or shows signs of atrial fibrillation. Atrial fibrillation is an irregular heart rate that increases the risk of heart complications, such as stroke and heart failure.
This new feature will be available to U.S. customers later this year, Apple said — an indication that it may not be ready for the Series 4 launch this month.
Fall detection could also be significant, especially for elderly users. The new Apple Watch claims to be able to tell the difference between a trip and a fall — and when the latter occurs, it will suggest calling 911. If it receives no response within a minute, the watch will automatically place an emergency call and message friends and family designated as emergency contacts.
Only certain Apple Watch models support cellular calls, but those that don’t can still make emergency calls when near a paired iPhone or Wi-Fi service.
Apple says it monitored some 2,500 people — measuring how they fell off ladders, missed a step while walking or got their legs caught in their pants while getting dressed. It used that data to separate real falls from other heavy wrist movements, such as clapping and hammering.
The feature will turn on automatically for users 65 and over; younger people can activate it in the settings. “I can see kids buying one for their parents and grandparents,” said analyst Patrick Moorhead of Moor Insights.