Future generations of Apple Watches, Fitbits, or Android Wear gadgets may be able to detect and mitigate health problems rather than simply relay health data, thanks to a federally funded project that is applying big-data tools to mobile sensors.
The project, called MD2K, won $10.8 million from the National Institutes of Health to develop hardware and software that compiles and analyzes health data generated by wearable sensors. MD2K’s ultimate goal is to use these sensors and data to anticipate and prevent “adverse health events,” such as addiction relapse. Though the project is aimed at researchers and clinicians, its tools are freely available, so these innovations could turn up in consumer wearables.
Commercial wearable devices aren’t suitable for research because they only gather a few types of health data about a user, such as number of steps taken and heart rate, and they typically display specific results rather than raw sensor data. In addition, their batteries can’t support a full day’s worth of high-frequency data collection and they don’t quantify the degree of uncertainty associated with their data.
To address these shortcomings, the MD2K team, which spans 12 different universities, produced a set of gadgets capable of collecting a variety of raw, reliable sensor data for 24 hours per charge. MotionSense is a smart watch that deciphers users’ arm movements through sensors and can track heart rate variability. EasySense is a micro-radar sensor worn near the chest to measure heart activity and lung fluid volume. MD2K researchers are also using AutoSense—invented before MD2K was established—a chest-band that gleans electrocardiogram (ECG) and respiration data. All three devices stream data via Wi-Fi to Android phones where an MD2K-built software platform processes the information and translates it into digital biomarkers about the wearer’s health status and risk factors.
Since MD2K’s work is open-source, manufacturers such as Apple, Garmin, and Samsung could use the project’s designs to build similar sensors and apps for their own wearable devices.