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BITalino Is A Low Cost, Modular Bio-Signal Sensor Kit That Makes It Quicker & Easier To Build Medical Devices & Health Tracker Apps

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As the quantified self movement continues to pick up momentum, the range of consumer devices tracking physiological signals is set to expand. But harvesting bio-signals requires specialist kit — which can be either expensive to buy or tricky to put together yourself for prototyping purposes, unless that’s your particular area of expertise. Well, here’s a device that wants to change that. BITalino is a simplified system for makers, app developers and researchers who want to quickly start capturing bio-signals.

The low cost (€149/$197 + shipping and taxes) kit of modular blocks includes a swathe of physiological sensors that can be broken out to use individually or linked together and used in whatever combination you’re after. BITalino’s approach is plug and play, to keep things as simple as possible. The sensors in the kit can interface with computing platforms such as Arduino (and derivatives) and Raspberry Pi, says project lead Hugo Silva. BITalino also includes Bluetooth connectivity so can be used in desktop and mobile environments.

“Currently there are several APIs for platforms including Android OS, Java or Python; BITalino is also cloud / web compatible through a software framework based on WebSockets, HTML5 and CSS3,” he tells TechCrunch.

Sensors included in the BITalino kit are:

  • an EMG (electromyography) to track muscle activation
  • an EDA (electrodermal Activity) to measure skin activity/moisture levels
  • a LUX light sensor to monitor ambient light or (used in conjunction with a light source) to track blood volume pulse data
  • an ECG (electrocardiogram) to track heart rate, monitor stress etc
  • an accelerometer to track limb movements

The board also includes an LED block for visual feedback, a microcontroller unit and a power management block to power the other units.

The kit is the result of a collaboration between Portuguese bio-sensor maker, PLUX – Wireless Biosignals (co-founded by Silva in 2007), and a not-for-profit research centre in the country, called Instituto de Telecomunicações, where Silva is currently doing his PhD. He isn’t aiming to make money off the BITalino kit itself — hence its low cost and bootstrapped status.

“BITalino by itself won’t be a money maker; it is more thought out as a community driver/motivator,” he says. “BITalino is sold with everything needed for people to start developing. The hardware prices start at €149 (+ shipping and taxes) and includes all the sensors and parts to jump start their work. The APIs and software framework is provided free of cost as well.

“Our goal with BITalino is to empower the community with basic tools for rapid prototyping of biosignal-based projects. We are looking forward to lower the prices even more as the production scales up.”

As well as its low relative cost — “BITalino makes technologies that usually cost several thousands of dollars readily available for anyone at very low pricing”, according to Silva — he says the platform’s other disruptive factor is its goal of “democratising” bio-signal acquisition technologies. The grand aim behind that being to help bring down the cost of developing affordable medical devices for developing and low-income countries.

While BITalino overlaps somewhat, in competitive terms, with Arduino and (the also not-for profit) Raspberry Pi, Silva says it is carving out a niche by specialising in bio-signal capture and processing. “The Arduino and Raspberry Pi platforms can be seen as competitors, however, biosignals have specific requirements (e.g. tolerance to noise, sampling frequency) for which these platforms are not particularly tuned, and many projects end up heavily bounded by the high cost and limited access to suitable hardware materials,” he says.

“The closest platform that one can find in this segment is the Libellium e-Health sensor platform for Arduino and Raspberry Pi, however the price point for this platform is above $500 and it does not provide either the same sensors, or the same versatility in terms of hardware and software. BITalino provides a framework for very integrated (stamp-like) systems to be developed, and has a growing and wide range of APIs and software tools.”

BITalino went on sale in mid August 2013 and just over 100 of the modular kits have been pre-ordered or sold to-date. Research institutions are a strong initial customer base, as you’d expect — but BITalino is also being targeted more broadly at students, hobbyists and app developers, so there’s plenty of scope for that number to grow.

“We’ve sold to countries ranging from U.S., South Africa, Italy, Spain, UK. BITalinos are already being used by people from institutions such as the MIT, University of Florida, Zurich University, among many others,” Silva adds.

Here’s a video demonstrating some possible use-cases for BITalino: