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Sensors-on-the-Go: The Growing World of Wearables

Our Rock West Solutions team has been heavily invested in signal processing development for many industries, including healthcare and defense. We focus a large portion of our time and effort into coming up with better ways to process signals for new and innovative applications. Wearables are an excellent example of how this technology is currently being used and implemented to not only improve health, but make people safer. From smartwatches to electro-optical sensors to radiation detectors, maximizing the signal processing capabilities of wearables can have major impacts with minimal impositions.

Figure 1 A small sampling of the many applications of wearable sensors for use in health monitoring [2]

Health and Wellness Accessories

While it may seem that wearables and healthcare have only begun to merge in recent years, one might argue that this relationship dates as far back as the 13th century when eyeglasses were adopted [1]. Prescription lenses seem rather commonplace now, and it is likely future generations will have the same attitude about smart consumer wearables. Most popular in this category currently are fitness trackers such as Fitbits or smartwatches. While devices in this field are hardly essential to life, they are packed with sensors such as accelerometers, altimeters, heartrate monitors, and GPS. All these elements might sound impressive, but they are fairly useless without extensive signal processing to turn these measurements into actionable data. The simple ‘steps taken’ reported at the end of a day is the result of constant signal analysis and filtering to differentiate between actual movement and mere background noise.

Figure 1 A small sampling of the many applications of wearable sensors for use in health monitoring [2]

One of the most powerful aspects of this type of technology is the ability to gather and process data 24/7. This capability is especially useful for diagnostic purposes. Health professionals have long been limited by the short period of time they have to observe and assess their patients. Figure 1 demonstrates some of the many metrics available for monitoring via wearable health technology [2].  Consumer products such as the Apple Watch 4 and the KardiaBand have been cleared by the FDA for their electrocardiogram (EKG) capability [3]. FDA clearance is not the same as FDA approval, but it is still a big step towards credibility for devices of this nature. The Apple Watch 4 claims to be able to detect atrial fibrillation, measuring heart rate variability, measure normal heart rate more accurately, and measure stress EKG.

For patients with chronic conditions, tools like this are an excellent avenue for them to engage with their health. Helping patients manage their conditions in their home environment could reduce hospital stays and decrease readmission rates [4]. Siren has created a Diabetic Sock and Foot Monitoring System that allows patients to track their foot temperature in order to quickly identify inflammation that may lead to ulceration [5]. Preventative care like this benefits patients and physicians alike, but only when the technology functions as promised. Accurate signal processing and data analysis are paramount when a person’s well-being is on the line.

Wearables for Defense

The defense and healthcare industries may seem very different, but technological advances in both fields are motivated by the same end goals. They both are constantly working to innovate, are crucial to our society, and depend on technology to reduce mortality in life or death situations. Wearables in this sector are useful in training and in protection. Head mounted displays, in combination with data gloves, enable trainers to introduce trainees into simulations of flight, boot camp, vehicles, or the battlefield. This more realistic experiential training means troops are better prepared for their future responsibilities without exposing them to the risks of these scenarios in real-life [6]. Clothing with built-in haptic devices has shown promise for passive haptic learning, where external haptic cues (such as vibrations) are used to induce muscle memory while the subject is engaged with other activities. The time and resources needed to train people on new skills or job responsibilities are costly. Wearables make it possible to reduce expenses while still improving results.

Outside the classroom, wearable sensors contribute greatly to soldiers’ health and safety. Many sensors previously discussed in relation to healthcare are also relevant here. Figure 2 illustrates the variety of sensor measurements that would be of medical relevance for optimal monitoring and care. While these are not all employed currently, there is little doubt tactical gear of the future will continue to integrate more and more sensors.

Because devices used in this setting have requirements for long battery life and light weight, innovation can be challenging. However, this limitation has hardly slowed down the rate of new developments. A research team at Kansas State University has developed a low-profile vest that is able to detect dangerous radiation (gamma rays and neutrons) as well as the general direction of its origin, and functions for weeks at a time on a single charge [8]. At Rock West, our experience with radiation detection services gives us particular insight to just how challenging a solution of this nature can be. Groups like this are an excellent reminder of just how much is possible when bright individuals are willing to push the boundaries of device development.

Figure 2 Potential applications of wearable sensors for monitoring soldier health [7]

Cutting through the Noise

Wearables are either currently available or in development for just about any application one can imagine. From personal fitness to personal safety, these small, portable sensors offer an exceptional variety of possibilities for implementation. However, this potential can only be fully realized if the fundamental aspects of the sensors are working properly. This means maximizing accuracy and efficiency of signal processing and data analysis. Rock West Solutions has a team of highly qualified and experienced individuals who work to accomplish just that. Whether it is detecting a heartbeat, optical photons, or gamma radiation, we can help your device reach its peak functionality.

Sources:

  1. https://online.grace.edu/news/business/the-past-present-future-of-wearable-technology/
  2. Piwek L, Ellis DA, Andrews S, Joinson A (2016) The Rise of Consumer Health Wearables: Promises and Barriers. PLoS Med 13(2): e1001953. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001953
  3. Wired – https://www.wired.com/story/ecg-apple-watch/
  4. Chiauzzi, Emil, Carlos Rodarte, and Pronabesh DasMahapatra. “Patient-centered activity monitoring in the self-management of chronic health conditions.” BMC medicine13, no. 1 (2015): 77. https://bmcmedicine.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12916-015-0319-2
  5. https://siren.care/
  6. https://www.vrs.org.uk/virtual-reality-military/
  7. Friedl, Karl & J. Buller, Mark & Tharion, William & Potter, Adam & L. Manglapus, Glen & W. Hoyt, Reed. (2016). Real Time Physiological Status Monitoring (RT-PSM): Accomplishments, Requirements, and Research Roadmap.
  8. https://www.k-state.edu/media/newsreleases/2018-01/html