Stylish watches that optionally double as medical/sports id
Biofeedback, Wearables, and Fitness Video Games
by Wearitude Team at Acculation on August 21st, 2013

Treating Stress and Pulmonary Disease with Heart Rate Variability Feedback: StressEraser and ... Nintendo?

Around 2008 one of our team members bought a product called the StressEraser. (It was quite expensive then; it has since fallen to around $130.) The device appears to combine an oximeter pulse sensor with a small computer and simple LCD screen. Technically classified as a "Heart Rate Variability Feedback Device", the onboard computer has algorithm that measure your heart rates’ variability, and gives you signals on when to breath to induce relaxation. Relaxation through breathing is an ancient art, and you can think of this device as your electronic yogi master. The device works --- the device is an FDA approved medical device and there are clinical references to its use in treating pulmonary disease.

Here’s where this gets interesting. Nintendo, no stranger to biofeedback mechanisms in video games, considered supporting a similar device, called the Vitality Sensor, for the Wii. One of many applications they must have had in mind would be a yoga breathing/relaxation game for their hit Wii Fit title. Another thing they could have done is come up with an inexpensive video game title that would have replaced the much more expensive Stress Eraser. As this article relates, Nintendo eventually abandoned the idea.

Inexpensive Pulse Oximeters and Future Smartwatch Apps

However, other Wii titles already have similar technology. EA Sports Active 2, one of our favorite workout games (for Wii, Playstation 2 & Xbox), includes an inexpensive pulse oximeter and accelerometer combo (some versions of the video game retail for under $20, including the two sensors). The pulse oximeter lets the fitness game dynamically adjust its workout, as well as giving the user feedback on their heart zone. Heart rate stats are displayed graphically after a workout, and can be uploaded to the user’s profile on an EA social network. (See this article on external blog Physiological Computing for more on biofeedback sensors in video games.). Some smartwatch-like devices, like they BodyMedia Fit, already monitor pulse rates, and, given the fact that it can be done cheaply for video games, we’d expect eventually every smartwatch to have this kind of capability.

In addition to making a great fitness or relaxation video game input, and clinical applications in treating pulmonary disease, inexpensive pulse oximeter devices have potential applications in medical apps. A number of iPhone apps claim to be able to use the phone’s flash and camera together to measure pulse rate. (The user holds their finger over both the flash and camera, and the camera supposedly can measure the pulse using light from flash.) Another app claims to be able to estimate pulse using the iPhones camera to measure subtle changes in flesh tones. These apps are controversial, and there is a lot of skepticism as to whether or not they are accurate.  (However, we have heard one anecdotal account of one such app being used on an airplane during a medical emergency.) 

The apps might not work or be accurate enough today, but eventually, as these iPhone techniques improve, or additional sensors get added to smartphones, someday your smartphone will be able to accurately measure your pulse rate. That means there’ll be an app that replaces the StressEraser, another workout app that adjusts in a manner similar to EA Sports Active 2, and yet another app that can send your pulse rate over to a remote doctor to assist in a telemedicine diagnosis. And eventually those capabilities will make it into your future smartwatch as it gradually replaces your smartphone.

"Sensor Laden Devices": A future $300 Billion market?

The complete category of these devices (small wearable devices like EA Sports Active 2’s sensors, your smartphone, and eventually your smartwatch) are grouped together as “Sensor Ladden Devices” by Forrester and are thought to be one of the most disruptive technologies of the next decade. They estimate the future market at $300 Billion, a staggering figure that surprises even some seasoned tech investors.

One of the reasons “sensor ladden devices” are potentially so disruptive is that, by combining many portable sensors together on a small “wearable” computer, entirely new applications can be invented. It’s not just the phone’s camera, or camera and flash, to measure heart rate (and then have the smartwatch’s computer run a relaxation biofeedback or medical diagnosis app), but truly unexpected applications can arise. One of the more interesting examples of this is the reprogramming of smartphone’s GPS sensors to detect hurricane wind speeds by measuring scattered GPS signals.. This potentially replaces much more expensive single-use devices that previously had to be dropped into the ocean for $750 a measurement. We would expect similar innovations in the health & fitness arena, and we’re already seeing some.

Obviously, one of the areas we’re most excited about is new ways of getting more accurate information to first responders. There are number of ways medical tag technology can be modernized beyond combining them with a cool watch, and we’re excited about what the future holds.

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Wearitude - August 24th, 2013 at 2:12 AM
Since writing this article, Owen Thomas of ReadWriteWeb has reviewed smartwatch fitness trackers that include a built-in pulse monitor. I get the sense these are still much bulkier that regular smartwatches. (One of the first entrants was the BodyMedia, now owned by Jawbone, that some reviewers have commented can become uncomfortable to wear. Thomas has tested a BodyMedia and seemed to echo that comment.) There are many innovative apps that can take advantage of a pulse monitor, but it remains to be seen how soon this sensor becomes standard. Here is the article:
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