Biotech & Health

Sensors And Sensitivity


There’s only so much practical real estate on the human body for wearables — unless you’re willing to revive the over-accessorizing trend of the 1980s.

So what if everyday objects that we interact with — whether it’s by resting against them or holding onto them — were to house the sensors that keep tabs on us? Anti-wearables, if you like, given that the technology becomes invisibly embedded into everyday objects.

This is the sensible trajectory of connected sensor technology. The world around us gains the ability to perceive us, rather than wearable sensors trying to figure out what’s going on in our environment by taking a continuous measure of us.

In one example currently being worked on, PLUX – Wireless Biosignals, the makers of a low cost, modular bio-sensor kit called BITalino, are embedding sensors into car seats, to offer a non-wearable way for human health signals to be quantified while a person is driving a car.

The project, called Harken (which stands for Heart And Respiration in-Car Embedded Nonintrusive sensors), is specifically focused on safety, with the ultimate aim of preventing fatigue-induced car accidents by monitoring the driver’s physiological activity for specific signs of fatigue based on the fact that the human heart rate and respiration changes when people are getting sleepy.

The Harken project involves a consortium of companies — with funding coming from the various partners and also partially from the European Union, via a grant attached to the Seventh Framework Programme, which funds technology R&D.

The core concept is to embed a heart rate monitor into the driver’s seat belt, and breath and vibration sensors into their seat, along with a signal processing unit that can separate the human physiological signals from the background noise/vibrations going on in the moving vehicle.

The safety system then combines the human signals with an algorithmic fatigue detector — so it could, for instance, warn the driver to stop driving and take a rest to avoid the risk of having an accident.

PLUX’s Hugo Silva tells TechCrunch the consortium has created a working prototype of its embedded fatigue-detecting in-car safety system, which will undergo extensive testing in controlled scenarios — so it’s some years out before this sort of sensor-powered safety system could start being embedded into car seats.

“The automotive industry is heavily regulated and Harken involves partners such as FICO MIRRORS S.A., which are Tier-1 suppliers to the automotive industry,” he notes. “As you can imagine all of this introduces a high overhead to a deployment, which can be roughly between 3 to 5 years.”

The vibration sensors are required by the system to help filter out the background noise which could contaminant the physiological signals, according to Silva. “Within the consortium the focus was to develop algorithms and methods capable of filtering and cancelling the noise and artifacts expected in a moving vehicle (vibration and body movements),” he says.

“The sensors on the seat and seatbelt are linked to a signal processing unit, which can then either provide direct feedback to the driver (by means of vibration or sound) [to warn them they are getting dangerously sleepy], communicate with the onboard computers to warn the user through the infotainment systems, or even in a later future take corrective actions; as you know, cars are getting smarter by the day with technologies for collision avoidance, lane assistance, among others.”

While this tech sounds very smart indeed, what’s even more interesting — from a tech trends perspective — is the growing potential of this anti-wearables approach of invisibly embedding sensors into objects with which humans interact.

So instead of having our bodies cluttered with electronic bangles that continuously quantify our existence, there’s an opportunity for more targeted applications of sensor technology, based on locating it in proximity to us — within objects we use, handle and interact with for specific purposes.

We’re seeing some of this happening already of course, but we’re also currently seeing a procession of sensor-containing wearables fired into the market — taking aim at our bodies. The vast majority of these devices are junk. Aka not really worth the wearing — unless you consider a not-very-accurate measure of heart rate or a ballpark number of daily steps something worth keeping tabs on.

The fact that the makers’ of these devices are focusing on a wearable use-case is arguably one of the reasons these early devices are not especially compelling. This wearable tech wave feels very much like version 1.0 of the Internet of Things.

Putting sensors elsewhere, into objects we come into contact with at certain times or in certain situations, contextualizes them — allowing use-cases to be more targeted and, as a result, more purposeful — and potentially more powerful.

Another example of an embedded sensor that Silva points to as an anti-wearable is the below prototype bicycle handlebars systems — built using BITalino sensors — to quantify the rider as they ride.

“The same concept can be extended to everything ranging from a computer keyboard, to the steering wheel of a car, the remote control of a Playstation, etc,” he adds.

Another more polished example, that’s not related to PLUX or BITalino, is Teddy The Guardian, a child-focused medical device being created by a UK-based startup.

On the surface the teddy bear looks like a normal stuffed toy. But it’s actually also stuffed with sensors that measure a child’s heart rate, oxygen saturation and body temperature — offering a more child-friendly way for hospital nurses to capture kids’ physiological signals.

What’s even more interesting is that the physiological signals captured when a child is playing with an object they perceive as a toy may well differ to those captured using standard medical equipment — which might unsettle or stress them out.

In other words, once sensors become invisible, the signals they capture may well tell a different — more accurate — story about us.

There will doubtless always be some people who do want to quantify their every conscious (and unconscious) moment — and who do want dashboards of their personal bodily data pumping day and night to reassure them that yes, they are still alive. Those people will probably want to co-exist with countless wearables.

But the idea that every (well) individual is continuously fascinated by the fact their heart is still pumping and their lungs still bellowing seems rather overblown. And so the proliferation of wellness-related wearables feels like an overly naive application of clever sensor technology.

What’s more likely is that people will see benefits in highly targeted applications for sensor devices that can help them in specific ways — whether that’s a warning system for dangerous fatigue when driving, an ill child’s toy that gathers underlying health data in a stress-free way, a toaster that pops up your toast before it burns, a toothbrush that detects the early signs of gum disease or tooth decay, or — going a little more off-the-wall — a keyboard that warns you when you’re drunk and locks out the buy button on eBay.

If you don’t have a sick kid, you’re never going to need to come into contact with Teddy the Guardian. And that’s the point really. The more exciting uses of sensors are about creating smart, targeted objects that help when necessary, not wearables that continuously harvest bio-data just for the sake of amassing  1s and 0s. Data is cheap. It’s how you capture it and what you do with it that counts.

So let’s hope the tedium of the current generation of step/breath quantifying wearables gives way to a smarter generation of embedded sensors that offer genuine utility for specific problems — and do so without drawing attention to their own existence, or making us over-obsessed with our own.

[Image by vijay chennupati via Flickr]

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