People interested in losing weight or tracking their physical activity can use a wearable device like Fitbit, Fuelband or others to track steps, calories burned and even sleep patterns. Phone apps help users log eating habits.
Now Clemson University researchers are taking the technology a step further with what they are calling “computational jewelry.”
In coordination with an interdisciplinary team of researchers at Dartmouth College, Clemson researchers presented the wrist-worn Amulet prototype at the USA Science and Engineering Festival this spring.
Amulet is designed to integrate applications that monitor not only the wearer’s vital signs, but also external sensors like a scale or blood pressure cuff, said Kelly Caine, assistant professor in Clemson’s Human-Centered Computing Division.
Caine and Dr. Jacob Sorber, assistant professor in the computer science division, both worked on the Amulet device and its supporting software.
“In the near future and certainly in the long-term vision, these sorts of health applications are going to be pervasive,” said Caine. “We’re going to have something with us all the time that can track physiological signals … there are going to be trackers for social interaction, even how you’re feeling.”
Amulet will be able to monitor health conditions and could connect with potentially lifesaving devices, Sorber said. For a diabetic patient with an insulin pump, “this could take sensor measurements about your blood sugar, activity and heart rate, bring them together and decide when to give you the appropriate dose of insulin,” he said.
Unlike a device that links to a mobile phone, Amulet is self-contained, the researchers said. Any data integration in current technology is done via an app rather than on a wearable device itself. Sorber said he also envisions a pharmacy-type model where a doctor could prescribe particular software for a patient’s Amulet device.
Sorber, who worked primarily on the software and programming portion of development, said the team worked to make the software easy to deploy, program and secure. Because the technology would be used for health purposes, it needs to be stable and sound, he said. “A poorly crafted piece of software could cause some sort of medical device to behave incorrectly. The consequences of a bug could be much more significant.”
Designing such a small, powerful device was part of the challenge for researchers, said Sorber, sometimes leading to “digital acrobatics” to ensure that multiple apps could run simultaneously and separately “on a very small device that has very tight resource constraints.”
Users are accustomed to inputting data through a mobile device, but designers had to invent unique interaction techniques, determine what sort of display would work best and what sort of notifications, sound or vibrations, that users would prefer, said Caine.
Because the device is used for health applications, there are also privacy concerns, whether it be a subtle notification that only the patient can detect or the secure transmission of information to a patient, doctor or family member, added Sorber.
Just as mobile phones and applications have permeated users’ lives in the last decade, Caine predicts that technology offering real-time feedback for health purposes will spread quickly. “People [users] believe that everyone will have these devices in 10 years,” she said.
Researchers are also dealing with devices that will always be worn, Caine said. Options include a behind-the-ear version, belts, rings, pendants and anklets, depending on what information needs to be gathered. However, researchers have to determine which locations are acceptable to users, she said.
“Anklets have negative connotations because they’re worn by criminals. That pervades our culture … anklets connote being tracked in a negative way,” Caine said. Design and location are also affected by what sort of data the device needs to collect, Sorber said.
In addition, the team must design a device that users will stick with, said Caine. Nearly one-quarter of people abandon their wearable devices after three months, and half give them up after a year, she said.
This summer, Caine’s group will be talking with existing users of wearable devices about their experiences, she said. The teams will also continue to refine the Amulet prototype, the researchers said.