How a New Wearable Can Track Your Health Via Vibrations

December 26, 2019 - 7 minutes read

These days, if you mention “wearables”, most people will automatically think of Fitbit and Apple Watch. And while these smartwatches track your sleep, heart rate, calories burned, and prompt you to increase your hourly movement, they’re actually monitoring very basic bodily functions.

Wearables encompass so much more than smartwatches, and a team of researchers at Chicago-based Northwestern University are on a mission to track more than your average smartwatch with a smart skin patch.

Not Your Average Band-Aid

Dr. John Rogers and his team are intimately familiar with smart sensors; between sweat monitors and brain monitors to whole-body sensor patches and fingernail electronics to track blood oxygen, they have worked on many different types of wearables for healthy, at-risk, and post-incident patients. For Dr. Roger’s lab, medical development for wearables prioritizes low- or no-power electronics that are soft enough to place on human skin and mold to the body’s shape.

The team’s newest wearable (and arguably the most holistic), however, claims to monitor almost every vibration that your body generates throughout the day and night. The patch is non-intrusive; it is about the size of a regular Band-Aid, and it tracks your heart rhythms, vocal vibrations, movements, body orientation, swallowing, breathing, sleep, and more.

In the Nature Biomedical Engineering publication of their research, the authors wrote about how easily the wearable could be manufactured commercially, “offering a high level of technology readiness.” Additionally, the wearable can quickly become more advanced with extra accelerometers of varying sensitivities, a way to measure blood oxygen levels, and monitoring blood sugar.

In short, eventually, consumers will want a device that silently and unobtrusively measures things in our bodies that we don’t usually even think about. Autonomous activities, like breathing rate, digestion effectiveness, and even your eyes’ pupillary response times are valuable data points that can help identify risk for stroke or cardiac arrest.

Ultimately, the goal for all wearables is to aid in personalized and preventative medicine and care using a variety of biomarkers and data points in real-time. The more data we can generate for our providers and AI algorithms to analyze, the better for us as patients.

Engineered for Personal Use

The wearable uses several tiny, low-power, and high-bandwidth accelerometers that track big bodily movements in addition to small, minute internal movements within your body. The patch comes with a battery, charging controllers and microcontrollers that oversee storage and communications using flash memory and Bluetooth.

Regulator components maintain the signal using resistors, amplifiers, and capacitors. An accompanying smartphone app maintains a transparent user experience, and the ability for the device to charge inductively so the user doesn’t have to plug anything in.

All of these components are linked with stretchable copper wires and embedded like a sandwich between two layers of flexible silicone gel that stretch and move naturally with the body. When they all work together, they measure bodily vibrations and sound frequencies from 0 to 1,600 Hertz.

This device is definitely not a smartwatch, however; the authors say that the ideal location for the patch is at the hollow of your throat. That’s not very fashionable, but this location can get accurate vibrations from your lungs, heart, and digestive system.

Putting This New Wearable to the Test

In lab tests, the patch was able to generate many data points about the body. It used mechanical signals from the throat to capture data about snoring, signing, breathing, coughing, talking, and swallowing. It marked when speech started and when it ended, but it’s unknown if the patch recognized the words that were actually spoken.

In the real world, the patch was tested in spin class; it accurately measured breathing cycles and heart rate. During a dinner test, the wearable marked when the user swallowed or spoke. During sleep, the device watched small bodily movements to calculate sleep positions, track heart rate, and monitor sleep stages and sleep cycles.

For many consumers, sleep is an important metric for a wearable, but this level of detail can be life-saving for infants and older patients.

Some Hurdles Before Market

These smart patches are almost to the stage of being sold to consumers, but there are a few hurdles to get over before we see people rushing to buy these.

Firstly, placing this patch on your throat isn’t attractive or fashionable. While this may seem like a shallow complaint, it’s an absolutely realistic one for most consumers.

Secondly, and most importantly, we don’t know how this device or its app handles data privacy. Google’s recent acquisition of Fitbit means there’s a spot open for a new competitor: one that prioritizes user privacy and data safety.

For this reason, the team needs to set strong privacy controls and policies before this patch is released for sale to the general public. We cannot have a repeat of Google’s Project Nightingale, which took medical patient data from Ascension clinics across 21 states without asking patients for their consent.

Although this patch can save lives, prevent an impending medical event, and monitor health improvements over time, we must not hastily introduce this extremely valuable device to the public without diligently securing its data ecosystem.

What do you think of this new wearable device? Would you use it? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

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