This year I.B.M dedicated its Five in Five series (an annual list of five technologies that are likely to advance dramatically) solely to sensors. Digital sensors of the touch, sight, hearing, taste and smell kind along with their potential are all profiled by I.B.M. Sensor technology is going through a renaissance as companies develop smart and innovative new ways to track data using them.
Sensor innovation is in-part driving the Digital Health Revolution as digital health companies find ingenius ways to integrate them in to apps, devices and other peripherals. The smartphone will play an increasing important role in all of this as they go from having six built-in sensors currently to having sixteen in the next five years.
If these predictions are correct then the next five years will be half-a-decade of sensor proliferation meaning the Digital Health Ecosystem will grow exponentially. In the meantime though there are already a plethora of digital health sensors in use or in the pipeline that are helping people improve and, in some instances, save lives. Some of the best are listed below.
1. Sano Intelligence
San Francisco startup Sano Intelligence has developed a small, wearable patch sensor that can read and transmit blood chemistry data to an external device like a smartphone. The company call it “an API for the bloodstream” and the unobtrusive patch attaches to the body and analyzes blood biomarkers such as glucose and potassium. Having real time data of blood levels can benefit a range of people from diabetics to athletes to those who just want to ensure their body is optimized appropriately. And of course a patch sensor takes away the time consuming, inefficient and, to some, worrying process of injecting needles.
There has been no mention of how many biomarkers the Sano Intelligence sensor tracks other than past articles citing both glucose and potassium as examples so it will be interesting to understand the range of needle-less monitoring that can be done with a patch.
2. Zephyr Technology
Zephyr has a range of sensor solutions and technologies and work with a host of customers including the US Military, Fire Department and even played a role in rescuing the Chilean miners [pdf] during the San Jose mine rescue operation.
Zephyr’s partnership with sports clothing and accessories company Under Armour is bringing data and analytics to competitive sports like never before. Under Armour’s E39 performance shirt which uses Zephyr’s technology allows athletes to track heart rate, speed, power breathing and biometric data. With this kind of technology and the data they produce sports coaches should never have to rely on intuition alone again.
When the Cardiio app launched in late 2012 it showed the possibilities of intuitively using the iPhone’s camera sensor for health. The Cardiio app uses the iPhone sensor to provide touch-free analysis of a person’s resting heart rate by analyzing their skin tone. When the heart beats, blood rushes to the face and decreases light reflected from the skin which goes unseen by the human eye. Using the iPhone sensor and technology developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab Cardiio calculates the person’s resting heart rate and informs you of your fitness level.
Since Cardiio’s launch both Azumio and Phillips have brought out similar touch-free apps called Stress Check and Vital Signs. Will Ikea start selling bathroom mirrors with Cardiio-like technology in the future providing analysis on our heart rate, stress levels and breathing? Sounds likely.
MC10 is a leader in senor innovation and CEO David Icke (profiled on bionicly.com as an influencer shaping digital health) leads the charge with the company’s Biostamp, an elastic digital sensor which can be placed both on the skin and in the body itself. MC10 also works with the U.S. military providing health sensors for soldiers out in the field. “We’ve made it possible to wirelessly monitor a soldier’s hydration, temperature and other indicators from a remote desert or a submerged submarine” the company’s website says.
Along with Reebok the company recently announced the June 2013 launch of CheckLight, a head impact indicator designed for those who participate in high impact sports and has been quoted by WIRED magazine as “taking wearable technology to the extreme.”
It’s no secret that Eric Topol is a big fan of AliveCor’s ECG screening device for the iPhone 4 and 4s. An AliveCor prototype was actually put in to action when Topol was on a transcontinental flight and diagnosed a fellow passenger as having a heart attack. As a result, the plane made an emergency landing and the patient received care right away.
The AliveCor is a case that fits over the iPhone with two built-in sensors connected to an app. You put your fingers over the sensors or up to your chest and the data is transmitted to the phone. An amazing device and I’ve been informed by co-founder of AliveCor, Dr. David Albert that it’s the only mHealth device which has been documented to save lives.
MedSensation is on a mission to make it easier for both Drs and patients to diagnose breast cancer, enlarged kidneys and other sub-dermal issues. Dubbed the Glove Tricorder it is mounted with pressure feedback loops, temperature sensors, accelerometers and the company plans to add ultrasound pads to the tips of the glove, allowing doctors to see inside the breast. Currently at the prototype stage MedSensation’s plan is to role it out to the medical community first and then provide a more consumer focused model after.
7.First Warning Systems
First Warning Systems has developed a sensing technology that will revolutionize how bras will be manufactured and sold in the future. The company is developing The Breast Tissue Screen Bra, a sensor layered bra that measures tiny temperature changes that occur as blood vessels grow and feed tumors. The sensor works with pattern recognition technology to detect tumours long before a mammogram and in three clinical trials, the bra correctly identified 92.1 percent of tumors, compared to the 70 percent accuracy of routine mammograms. As the technology develops all bras could be manufactured with this sensor in them and linked to the individual’s personal body data dashboard.
In terms of design, Withings is the Apple of consumer digital health with its range of beautifully crafted products. Similarly its ethos of innovation is not too disimilar to Apple either with the inclusion of sensors it equips its products to differentiate itself from its competitors and improve the user experience. For example the air quality measure and heart rate monitor it includes in its body scale and a pulse measure to its activity tracker are options that other products do not provide. From a consumer health point of view Withings is bringing sensor innovation to the masses.
Imagine a pill which you swallow and it transmits body temperature and heart and respiration rate to an external computer. Imagine if you’re a firefighter and you have the comfort of knowing that this data is being tracked as you risk your life to save lives and should your body core temperature rise you’ll be pulled out.
Equivital, a company that specilizes in wearable physiological monitoring, has developed technology to do exactly that. The VitalSense Core Temperature Capsule pill has been tested on 50 firefighters in Australia with success. The pill is simply swallowed and then exits through the body via regular means.
The MyoLink from Somaxis is a revolutionary new sensor which measures muscle energy output that can measure and quantify how warmed-up a person is, how much work they’re doing, fatigue, endurance and recovery level. When placed on the chest the sensor can continuously track heart rate also.
The MyoLink touts itself as the ultimate open-source, wireless, wearable EMG / EKG / EEG biosensor platform and it’s not hard to see why.
Which companies do you think are leading the way in sensor innovation?
For an in-depth review of the sensor landscape health economist, Jane Sarasohn-Kahn, has created an excellent guide titled Making Sense of Sensors: How New Technologies Can Change Patient Care, for the California HealthCare Foundation. It really is a great read.