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Mind

Wireless Monitoring, a Stepping Stone to Star Trek Health Care

Science Not FictionBy Eric WolffOctober 12, 2010 3:12 AM

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We have a ways to go before Dr. McCoy can run up to a patient, swipe a Tricorder over them and come up with an instant diagnosis, but we're swiftly building a ladder to that future with wireless sensors and our smart phones. Anyone who's had an EKG knows they're a moderately unpleasant experience: Electrodes dangling long wires must be taped to your chest (which includes getting a patchy shave from the nurse, for the hirsute among us), which of course makes moving around the room a challenge when it comes to stress tests or other related examinations. We'll dispense with most of that stuff, if engineering doctoral candidate Yu Mike Chi and Dutch biotech IMEC have their ways in the market place. Chi, who is still studying at the University of California-San Diego, devised a sensor that can pick up the electromagnetic pulses from heartbeats through layers of cloth, eliminating the need for direct skin contact. The sensors relay medical quality heart rate data to a nearby computer. The sensors can be embedded in a hospital gown in a medical environment, or eventually in clothing for ongoing data collection. IMEC's sensors still have to be stuck to a patient's body, but they've built them so they can communicate as a body area network to an Android smart phone. If a person using the BAN collapses or has some other medical emergency, the phone could call for help, and doctors or EMTs could review the data immediately prior to the patient's collapse to make a diagnosis. The problem for both devices will be familiar to anyone with a heavily used smart phone: battery life. Julien Penders, who designed the BAN for IMEC, told New Scientisthe couldn't use the BlueTooth wireless standard because it demanded too much power. By applying a nRF24L01+ standard, his network can transmit signals every 100 milliseconds survive for seven days on a single charge. Neither of these products is ready for market --- Chi has two working prototypes and is looking for venture capital, and IMEC's system isn't ready for mass production ---- but combine them and we're starting to get something that worthy of the Enterprise: clothing laden with biometric scanners that wireless broadcast medical data to a pocket computer. Then again, there may be some privacy problems: I'd hate to suddenly start getting spammed by Pfizer, just because my BAN showed an increased pulse rate during an exciting movie.

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