Morrie Altmejd, a senior staff engineer at Silicon Labs, wrote this article that recently appeared in Electronic Products Magazine.
Designing and implementing an optical heart rate monitoring (HRM) system, also known as photoplethysmography (PPG), is a complex, multidisciplinary project. Design factors include human ergonomics, signal processing and filtering, optical and mechanical design, low-noise signal receiving circuits and low-noise current pulse creation.
Wearable manufacturers are increasingly adding HRM capabilities to their health and fitness products. Integration is helping to drive down the cost of sensors used in HRM applications. Many HRM sensors now combine discrete components such as analog front ends (AFE), photodetectors and light-emitting diodes (LEDs) into highly integrated modules. These modules enable a simpler implementation that reduces the cost and complexity of adding HRM to wearable products.
Wearable form factors are steadily changing too. While chest straps have effectively served the health and fitness market for years, HRM is now migrating to wrist-based wearables. Advances in optical sensing technology and high-performance, low-power processors have enabled the wrist-based form factor to be viable for many designs. HRM algorithms also have reached a level of sophistication to be acceptable in wrist form factors. Other new wearable sensing form factors and locations are emerging, such as headbands, sport and fitness clothing, and earbuds. However, the majority of wearable biometric sensing will be done on the wrist.
No two HRM applications are alike. System developers must consider many design tradeoffs: end-user comfort, sensing accuracy, system cost, power consumption, sunlight rejection, how to deal with many skin types, motion rejection, development time and physical size. All of these design considerations impact system integration choices, whether to use highly integrated module-based solutions or architectures incorporating more discrete components.
Figure 1 shows the fundamentals of measuring heart rate signals, which depend on the heart rate pressure wave being optically extracted from tissue. Figure 1 shows the travel path of the light entering the skin. The expansion and contraction of the capillaries, caused by the heart rate pressure wave, modulates the light signal injected into the tissue by the green LEDs. The received signal is greatly attenuated by the travel through the skin and is picked up by a photodiode and sent to the electronic subsystem for processing. The amplitude modulation due to the pulse is detected (filtering out motion noise), analyzed and displayed
Figure 1. Principles of operation for optical heart rate monitoring.
A fundamental approach to HRM system design uses a custom-programmed, off-the-shelf microcontroller (MCU) that controls the pulsing of external LED drivers and simultaneously reads the current output of a discrete photodiode. Note that the current output of the photodiode must be converted to voltage to drive most analog-to-digital (A/D) blocks. The Figure 2 schematic shows the outline of such a system. Note that the I-to-V converter creates a voltage equal to VREF at 0 photodiode current, and the voltage decreases with increasing current.
The current pulses generally used in heart rate systems are between 2 mA and 300 mA depending on the color of the subject’s skin and the intensity of sunlight with which the desired signal needs to compete. The infrared (IR) radiation in sunlight passes through skin tissue with little attenuation, unlike the desired green LED light, and can swamp the desired signal unless the green light is very strong or unless an expensive IR blocking filter is added. Generally speaking, the intensity of the green LED light where it enters the skin is between 0.1x and 3x the intensity of sunlight. Due to heavy attenuation by the tissue, the signal that arrives at the photodiode is quite weak and generates just enough current to allow for a reasonable signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) (70 to 100 dB) due to shot noise even in the presence of perfect, noise-free op amps and A/D converters. The shot noise is due to the finite number of electrons received for every reading that occurs at 25 Hz. The photodiode sizes used in the design are between 0.1 mm2 and 7 mm2. However, above 1 mm there are diminishing returns due to the effect of sunlight.
Figure 2. The basic electronics required to capture optical heart rate.
The difficult and costly function blocks to implement in an optical heart rate system design, as shown in Figure 2, are the fast, high-current V-to-I converters that drive the LED, a current to voltage converter for the photodiode and a reliable algorithm in the MCU that sequences the pulses under host control. A low-noise (75 - 100 dB SNR) 300 mA LED driver that can be set to very low currents down to 2 mA while still creating very narrow light pulses down to 10 µs is an expensive block to achieve with discrete op amps.
The narrow pulses of light down to 10 µs shown in Figure 2 allow the system to tolerate motion and sunlight. Typically two fast light measurements are made for each 25 Hz sample. One measurement is taken with the LEDs turned off and one with the LEDs turned on. The calculated difference removes the effect of ambient light and gives the desired raw optical signal measurement that is, most importantly, insensitive to flickering background light.
The short duration of the optical pulses both allows and requires a relatively strong light pulse. It is essential to stay brighter than the sunlight signal, which may be present and not allow the PPG signal carrier to be dwarfed by the sunlight signal. If the sunlight signal is larger than the PPG carrier, then although it may be removed by subtraction, the signal can be so large that external modulation such as swinging an arm in and out of shadow can create difficult-to-remove artifacts. As a result, systems that use low-current LED drivers and large photodiodes to compensate suffer severely from motion artifacts in bright light situations
Much of the desired HRM sensing functionality is available pre-designed and integrated into a single device. Packing most of this functionality into one piece of silicon results in a relatively small 3 mm x 3 mm package that can even integrate the photodiode (PD) itself.
Figure 3 shows an example of a schematic with an Si118x optical sensor from Silicon Labs. This HRM design is relatively easy to implement. The engineer just needs to focus on the optical portion of the design, which includes optical blocking between the parts on the board and coupling the system to the skin.
Figure 3. An integrated heart rate sensor requiring only external LEDs.
While the approach shown in Figure 3 results in a high-performance HRM solution, it is not as small or power efficient as some designers would like. To achieve an even smaller solution, the LED die and the control silicon must be integrated into a single package that incorporates all essential functions including the optical blocking and the lenses that improve the LED output. Figure 4 illustrates this more integrated approach, based on a Silicon Labs Si117x optical sensor.
No external LEDs are required for this HRM design. The LEDs and photodiode are all internal to the module, which can be installed right below the optical ports at the back of a wearable product such as a smartwatch. This advantageous approach enables a shorter distance between the LEDs and the photodiode than is possible with a discrete design. The reduced distance allows operation at extremely low power due to lower optical losses traversing the skin.
Integrating the LEDs also addresses the issue of light leakage between the LEDs and the photodiode. As a result, the designer does not have to add optical blocking to the printed circuit board (PCB). The alternative to this approach is to handle the blocking with plastic or foam inserts and special copper layers on the PCB.
Figure 4. A highly integrated HRM sensor module incorporating all essential components.
There is one more part of an HRM design that the developer does not necessarily need to create: the HRM algorithm. This software block residing on the host processor is quite complex due to the signal corruption that occurs during exercise and motion in general. End-user motion often creates its own signal that spoofs the actual heart rate signal and is sometimes falsely recognized as the heart rate beat.
If a wearable developer or manufacturer does not have the resources to develop the algorithm, third-party vendors provide this software on a licensed basis. Silicon Labs also offers a heart rate algorithm for its Si117x/8x optical sensors that can be compiled to run on most host processors.
It is up to the designer to decide how much integration is right for the HRM application. The developer can simplify the design process and speed time to market by opting for a highly integrated module-based approach using a licensed algorithm. Developers with in-depth optical sensing expertise, time and resources may opt to use separate components (sensors, photodiodes, lenses, etc.) and do their own system integration, and even create their own HRM algorithm. Ultimately, when it comes to HRM system design, the developer has a choice of doing it all or purchasing it all.