December 4, 2012
It was a moment that would have brought a smile–a sardonic one, of course–to the face of Bones McCoy.
Last week, the California-based firm Scanadu announced that by the end of next year, it will begin selling a device called Scout. The little gadget, which fits in the palm of your hand, will, in conjunction with your smartphone, be able to tell you your temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, breathing rate and the level of oxygen in your blood–all within 10 to 15 seconds.
In other words, it will be the closest thing we’ll have to that bulky but nifty tricorder that McCoy wielded so deftly as chief medical officer on the Starship Enterprise back in the glory days of Star Trek. Which is the point, because Scanadu is one of the competitors for the $10 million award in Qualcomm’s Tricorder X Prize.
Scanadu is already making comparisons to the innovation of the family thermometer back in the 19th century, an invention that gave people the opportunity to gather health data at home. They may be right about that.
Most doctors would certainly agree that this is a good thing, in that it will make it ridiculously easy for a person to check his vitals every day. In theory it would, like the thermometer, let people know if they have a health problem without attempting to explain what it might be.
But then there’s this tagline on the Scanadu website: “Sending your smartphone to med school.” Sure, it’s meant as a clever, pithy pitch. But it also raises a notion that makes a lot of people in the medical community very uneasy about where this boom in health and medical apps is headed.
When does gathering data slide into making diagnoses or even promising cures? And if it does, who’s going to ensure that any of this is based on real science?
Apparently, a lot of what’s out there now isn’t. Last month, the New England Center for Investigative Reporting released the results of its analysis of 1,500 health mobile apps that cost money. It’s not a pretty picture.
The reporters found that more than 20 percent of the apps they reviewed claim to treat or cure medical problems. Of those 331 therapeutic apps, nearly 43 percent relied on cellphone sound for treatments. Others promised results using a cellphone’s light and a few pitched the power of phone vibrations. Scientists told the journalists that none of the above could possibly treat the conditions in question.
There’s no longer an app for that
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is expected to soon announce how it plans to regulate medical apps. It’s not likely to worry about the thousands of health apps that allow people to track their workouts or their daily calorie counts or how they slept. But it will look closely at apps that are promoted as a way to diagnose or treat a disease or condition.
By its latest count, there are now almost 18,000 health and fitness apps and more than 14,500 medical apps. As cautious as the feds have been has been about getting into the business of regulating software, they haven’t been able to ignore a few of the more egregious examples of mobile app magical thinking.
Last year the Federal Trade Commission banned the sale of two apps that promised to cure acne.
And that’s why they call it a smartphone
Here are other recent examples of mobile tech transforming the field of medicine:
- Is it the blue pill or the red pill?: Microsoft has jumped into the medical apps business by joining with NextGen Healthcare to develop, for Windows 8, an app called NextGen MedicineCabinet. It will allow people to create and store a detailed digital record of their prescription medications and be able to share it with doctors and hospitals when necessary. It also will let health care providers identify potentially harmful drug interactions.
- Will it tell you if you’re watching “Cops” too much? California startup Lark Technologies has launched a product it calls larklife–wristbands with sensors that work with an iPhone to track your daytime activities–calories burned, distance traveled, steps taken, food eaten–and your nighttime–how you slept. Then it provides you with tips during the day based on what your data says. For instance, if you don’t sleep as much as usual, it might point out that it’s a good idea to eat breakfast. Or it might congratulate you for a big fitness accomplishment, such as walking 1,000 steps in one day.
- Because it’s so hard to show surgery on stick people: A company called Visible Health has created a product called DrawMD, a series of free iPad apps that allow surgeons to explain surgical processes to their patients. Instead of scratching out a crude pencil sketch on a notepad, doctors can use digital anatomical images in the apps, which they can sketch or type on to illustrate a medical procedure.
- Is there a doctor in the house? HealthTap, with a large searchable doctor directory–complete with ratings, peer-reviews, and the ability to book appointments–plus a popular health Q&A feature, has been a player in the medical apps world for awhile. And last week it got even bigger, buying Avvo Health, another medical Q&A service with a network of physicians. That expands HealthTap’s Medical Expert Network to more than 30,000 American doctors and dentists.
- But does it send an alert when he needs a massage? It’s about time. Last week Japanese tech giant Fujitsu announced the launch of Wandant, a device that attaches to a dog’s collar and keeps track of how many steps it takes during a day. It also measures the dog’s temperature and comes with an online diary where owners can record what their furry overlord has eaten, what it weighs and the condition of its stool.
Video bonus: Yes, there are a lot of fitness videos out there, but few make running as much fun as Zombies, Run! Hear from the diabolical minds who created it.
More from Smithsonian.com:
September 13, 2012
A new movie premieres in New York today and chances are none of you will ever see it.
It’s a short film titled “DVF Through Glass” and it’s video that models working for designer Diane von Furstenberg shot during New York’s Fashion Week using Google glasses they were wearing. (Google prefers to call its augmented reality devices Google Glass to distinguish them from actual glasses because they contain no glass. Got that?)
They’re the frames that caused such a stir last spring when Google unveiled them, wearable computers that can shoot videos and photos and tell you where the nearest Starbucks can be found. By wearing them as they strolled down the runway, von Furstenberg’s models became high-tech accessorized. For its part, Google managed to de-geek its invention a tad by putting it on fashion models, not to mention grab some New York media exposure before all the spotlights swung over to Apple’s iPhone 5.
As Spencer Ante pointed out in The Wall Street Journal this week, Google Glass remains a work in progress, with much of its software unfinished. It won’t be available until next year and, at $1,500 a pop, will likely be a novelty bauble for awhile.
Still, it’s already the best known of what are being called “appcessories,” wearable devices that work with smart phones. Earlier this week, a potential challenger, glasses developed by a British firm called The Technology Partnership (TTP), made its debut. Unlike Google Glass, the TTP device looks like regular glasses and beams an image directly into the wearer’s eye, instead of making him or her shift focus to a tiny screen attached to the frame.
Then there’s the Pebble, a smart watch that tells you the time, but also connects wirelessly with your iPhone or Android phone to show you who’s calling, display text messages, Facebook or email alerts and let you control, from your wrist, what’s playing on your smartphone. Its inventors had hoped to raise $100,000 on Kickstarter, with the goal of selling 1,000 watches. Instead they raised $10 million and already have orders for 85,000 watches–so many that they’ve had to push back the first shipment, which was supposed to start this month.
It’s that kind of response that has a lot of people predicting that wearable computing is the next big wave, the thing that will free us from what’s been called the “black mirror” of our smartphone screens. Your phone may still be the powerful little computer you carry around, but it may never have to leave your pocket.
Or you can do without the phone altogether. London digital art director Dhani Sutanto created an enamel ring with the electronics of a transit card implanted in it. One swipe of his ring and he can ride the London subway.
His goal, he says, is to design “interactions without buttons,” to link physical items–such as a ring–to your virtual identity and preferences.
“Imagine a blind person using an ATM and fumbling with the buttons or touch screen,” Sutanto recently told an interviewer. “If they had wearable technology in the form of a ring, for example, they could approach and just touch it. The ATM would say, “Welcome, Mr. Smith. Here’s your £20.”
Turn me on
Google wasn’t alone in infusing tech in Fashion Week. Microsoft was there, too, presenting a dress that tweeted. Okay, the dress, made of paper, didn’t actually tweet, but the person wearing it could, using a keyboard on its bodice, decorate the bottom of the dress with Twitter banter.
My guess–and hope–is that this won’t catch on and we will never have to live in a world where people wear their tweets on their sleeves. But another breakthrough in wearable tech a few months ago could dramatically change what we expect our clothes to do for us.
Scientists at the University of Exeter in the U.K. have created a substance that can be woven into a fabric to produce the lightest, most transparent and flexible material ever made that conducts electricity. One day, they say, we could be walking around in clothing that carries a charge.
To me, this would not seem a good fashion choice if there’s even a chance of thunder and lightning. But the researchers at Exeter have happier thoughts. They talk of shirts that turn into MP3 players and of charging your phone with your pants.
Which could give new meaning to “wardrobe malfunction.”
Here are other recent developments in wearable tech:
- You’ve got the power: A British professor is trying to produce clothing made with materials capable of generating electricity from either the warmth or movement of the human body.
- If you must talk in public, do it with style: Nothing stylish about walking around wearing a Bluetooth headset. But now, at least for women, there are other options, such as a pendant that works like a headset, but looks like a necklace.
- One device to rule them all: Scientists at Dartmouth are developing a device worn like a bracelet that would authenticate a user’s identity and connect any other medical devices he or she has had implanted or is wearing.
- Mom, is that you?: A device called LUMOback that you wear like a belt around your back vibrates to let you know if you’re slouching.
- News from the front: Adidas now has a sports bra that both tracks your heartbeat and tells you how many calories you’ve burned.
- Are you going to answer your phone or what?: Not quite sure what to make of this one, but Nokia has filed for a patent for a magnetic vibrating tattoo. The idea is that it would work like a silent ringtone, setting off a different vibration depending on who’s calling or if your phone battery is running low.
Video bonus: See how Microsoft’s Kinect is being used to let you try on clothes without having to take any off.
More from Smithsonian.com
August 23, 2012
It’s not often that shoes make news and when they do, it usually has something to do with Nike and latest sports deity whose feet it has shod.
So it was again earlier this week when The Wall Street Journal reported that when Nike rolls out its LeBron X Nike Plus model this fall, sneakers could break the $300 barrier.
For that tidy sum, you’ll get the same type of shoes LeBron James wore in the Olympics gold medal basketball game in London and you get sensors–four scientifically-placed sensors embedded under each sole. They will measure downward pressure from different points on your foot and, together with an accelerometer, also under the sole, they’ll gather data and send it to your smartphone, which will let you know how high you’ve jumped.
Not that I need sensors to tell me that the answer is “Not very.” Then again, I’m hardly in Nike’s golden demo. Still, while demand for pricey sports shoes has remained steady throught the recession, the sense is that if prices keep climbing, people better get more than a gilded Swoosh for their money. So Nike has also put the sensors in trainer models, allowing the shoes to track and measure a person’s workouts and share that info with his or her smartphone.
Which, if equipped with Siri, will one day be able to let you know how disappointed she is in you.
You are how you walk
Actually, the most intriguing story about shoes this summer came out last month in Pittsburgh. Researchers at Carnegie-Mellon University (CMU) are working with a Canadian startup called Autonomous ID to develop biometric shoes that can identify who you are by the way you walk.
Studies have shown that everyone has unique feet and a distinctive gait, a signature as personalized as a fingerprint. Both the U.S. Department of Defense and the Chinese government, in fact, have spent millions of dollars on gait research.
The CMU team has applied that knowledge to create what they’ve dubbed BioSoles for shoes. They can record the pressure points of someone’s feet, track their gait and use a microcomputer to compare that to a master file already made for that person. If the patterns match, the BioSoles stay silent. If they don’t, they transmit a wireless alarm message.
According to the scientists, the system knows by your third step if you are who you’re supposed to be. In testing so far, they say it’s been accurate 99 percent of the time. Now they’re broadening the sample so that a much wider range of society is tested–thin people, heavy people, athletes, members of different races and cultures, and twins.
How would BioSoles be used? Mainly at military bases and nuclear plants for now, where each employee would have his own shoes. That would provide security that’s effective, but less invasive than other biometric techniques, such as iris scans.
But since the devices are designed to detect changes in gait, some think they could end up being used to help spot early signs of Alzheimer’s disease. One of its first indications is a slowing walk or a change in stride.
Best foot forward
Here are other recent innovations from the shoe biz:
- At least your shoes will understand you: Engineers in Germany have developed a device called ShoeSense that allows your shoes to read hand gestures and pass on messages to your smartphone. Here’s how it would work: Say you’re sitting in a meeting and you feel your phone vibrate in your pocket, but don’t want to be rude. So you make a pre-arranged gesture under the table, such as holding up two fingers, and your shoes will tell your phone to send a text you’ve already written.
- The gaits have opened: A firm based in Oklahoma City, Orthocare Innovations, has created a prosthetic device that closely mimics a human ankle and can be controlled with a smartphone. The device includes a microprocessor, sensors and hydraulics that allow users to make adjustments to changes in conditions, such as moving from a level surface to an incline.
- Lost and found: There’s now a brand of shoes designed to help find Alzheimer’s patients who wander away. The GPS Smart Shoe has a GPS transmitter embedded in its heel and tracks the person’s location in real time and sends the info to a monitoring station.
- Hot off the printer: Continuum, a small firm that sells customizable fashion, is now marketing shoes made on a 3D printer. Customers can order different colors, styles or heel lengths. The cost? A cool $900 a pair. (Take that, LeBron).
- Road zip: To make it easier to pack hiking shoes, Timberland has come out with the Radler Trail Camp shoes. They fold in half and zip shut.
- Yes, there are bad ideas: Earlier this summer Los Angeles designer Jeremy Scott created for Adidas a model for a sneaker that came with a plastic shackle meant to encircle the leg above each shoe. The Rev. Jesse Jackson said they looked like “slave shoes.” Adidas made them go away.
More from Smithsonian.com
January 23, 2012
Someday, probably sooner than we think, much of our lives will be recorded by sensors. Whether it’s armbands tracking our heartbeats or dashboards monitoring our driving or smart phones pinpointing where we are at all times, we, as defined by our preferences and habits, are becoming part of the staggering swirl of data already out there in cyberspace.
With so much personal information now in play, a lot of people are nervous about who owns it and what they’ll do with it. As they should be. But there’s also the question of how to make sense of it all. Can all this seemingly random data be reconfigured into patterns that not only do the obvious–allow businesses to zero in on customers–but also help deal with ridiculously complex matters, such as slashing health care costs or forecasting the stock market?
Consider the possibilities in health care. In the past, anyone analyzing who gets ill and why had to rely on data skewed heavily toward sick people–statistics from hospitals, info from doctors. But now, with more and more healthy people collecting daily stats on everything from their blood pressure to their calorie consumption to how many hours of REM sleep they get a night, there’s potentially a trove of new health data that could reshape what experts analyze. As Shamus Husheer, CEO of the British firm Cambridge Temperature Concepts, told the Wall Street Journal, “You can compare sleep patterns from normal people with, say, pain sufferers. If you don’t know what normal sleep looks like, how do you tease out the data?”
In Austin, Texas, Seton Health Care is using Watson–that’s right, the IBM supercomputer that humiliated its human competitors on “Jeopardy!” last year–to comb through tons of patient information with the goal of helping hospitals identify behavior that drives up costs. For instance, Watson is now focusing on patients with congestive heart failure, but it’s looking at much more than what appears on patients’ charts, such as doctors’ notes. And it’s finding that factors that wouldn’t ordinarily show up in medical analysis–like patients not having transportation to get to a doctor for checkups–can be a big reason for repeat trips to the ER, which of course, is the sort of thing that sends health care costs through the roof.
Twitter tells all
Now that we have both tools to crunch so much data and so much data to crunch, it makes finding patterns that predict the future less daunting. “We’re finally in a position where people volunteer information about their specific activities, often their location, who they’re with, what they’re doing, how they feel about what they’re doing, what they’re talking about,” Indiana University professor Johan Bollen told the Boston Globe. ”We’ve never had data like that before, at least not at that level of granularity.”
There are outfits that analyze Twitter traffic for financial services companies and even a hedge fund in London that uses a secret Twitter-based formula to make investment decisions.
Bollen is such a believer that he says he’s found a correlation between the level of anxiety expressed on Twitter and the performance of the stock market. Seriously. Based on his analysis, when there’s a high level of anxiety of Twitter, three days later, the stock market goes down.
So remember, keep your tweets sweet.
We’ll be watching you
Here are just a few of the new ways sensors are tapping into our daily lives:
- The beat goes on: A North Carolina startup has created earbuds with sensors that monitor your heart rate and other biometric data.
- Smarty pants: Soon American soldiers could be wearing underwear that tracks their respiration, heart rate, body posture and skin temperature and relays the info back to a central system.
- Another reason to watch your weight: A Japanese engineering professor has developed an ultra-sensitive sheet that fits over the driver’s seat and, by reading the contours of your butt, can determine if you’re one of the car’s approved drivers.
- Some like it hot, some don’t: Thanks to researchers at MIT, you may one day wear a wristband that allows you to control the temperature and lighting in your part of the office.
- And now, a pill for your pills: Later this year a smart pill with sensors that track if people are using their medications correctly will go on the market in the United Kingdom.
- Your clothes just called: Apple has received a patent for a system through which your running shoes or your clothing will send suggestions to your iPhone about how you can improve your workout.
Video bonus: Check out how OmniTouch can turn your hand, or any other flat surface, into a touch screen.
January 9, 2012
It’s time again for the Super Bowl of Stuff. Its official name is the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) and this is the week when Las Vegas gets its wonk on, filling up with people who prefer gizmos over G-strings and find nothing quite so ravishing as a TV screen big enough to need two zip codes.
CES brings its own kind of decadence to Sin City, one that cranks up consumption by making the gadgets you got last month already feel retro. But it also has been the event where we’ve taken our first looks at tech that quickly moved into our daily lives–the VCR in 1970, the camcorder and CD player in 1981, DVRs and high-definition TVs in 1998.
This year, though, CES is going through some changes. Yes, tonight, as usual, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer will kick things off with the opening keynote address. But it will be Microsoft’s CES swan song; the company won’t be back next year. At the same time, the keynoter tomorrow morning is someone who’s never been there before–Dieter Zetsche, Daimler chairman and head of Mercedes-Benz. And among the three speakers on Wednesday morning’s “CES Innovation Power Panel” is Ford CEO Alan Mulally. Ford alone will have 20 models on display.
Bottom line: CES is turning into a mini-auto show.
What’s driving this is the belief that modern cars need to be as much smartphone as vehicle, that just because you’re cruising down the highway doesn’t mean you should feel any less connected than you do on your couch. Auto execs talk about turning cars into “infotainment centers” and are promising that models of the future shouldn’t be any less a personal assistant than Apple’s Siri, the voice-controlled digital concierge on the iPhone 4S. Why shouldn’t you be able to ask your car to read you your email or have it know which tunes you like to hear when you’re out on the interstate?
Daimler’s Zetsche and Ford’s Mulally will likely talk about cloud computing from inside your auto, how your car and smartphone will soon be talking to each other and how you’ll one day be able control the temperature, the speaker volume and and plenty of other things simply by moving your fingers without your hands leaving the wheel.
Mulally also will bang the drums for a new smartphone app called MyFord Mobile, rolled out in conjunction with Ford’s first electric car, the Focus Electric, which hits the market later this year. The app will let users check the charge level of their cars, find charging stations, warm up or cool down the interior and unlock the doors, all while they’re away from their vehicles.
Talk about a dream car
But the Ford product at CES most likely to make gearheads gaga is its latest concept car, the Ford Evos. Keep in mind that concept cars are meant to be way out of the box and sometimes can end up looking daft. (Consider the Ford Nucleon, a concept car unveiled in 1957 that was supposed to be powered by a small nuclear reactor in the back.)
As envisioned by Ford, the Evos would start its day while you’re still sleeping, checking the weather, traffic reports, your email and work schedule, then, based on what it finds out, tells your alarm clock when you need to get up. It would also know what you’ve been listening to and resume playing it when you get in the car. If conditions are dicey, it can check your heart rate and switch your smartphone to Do Not Disturb mode. Or if you’re stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic, your buddy Evos would take over the driving and let you answer emails. It could even direct you away from roads where pollution levels are high, then wrap things up by finding you parking space.
Nice concept, eh?
By the way, a few days ago Ford announced that it will open an R&D lab in Silicon Valley this year. Renault-Nissan, GM, BMW and Volkswagen are already there.
Here are some other gadgets that will get some attention at CES this week:
- Thanks, I needed that: BodyMedia has mixed a nifty armband with IBM software to create a device that gives you access to your own personal digital trainer and nutritionist.
- Another reason not to read in the dark: There’s now a cover for the Kindle that uses solar power to give your tablet a nice long charge, compliments of a company called SolarFocus.
- The ride stuff: The iBike Powerhouse attaches to a bike and uploads your performance data to an iPhone and sets goals for your next ride. It also gives you digital pep talks.
- Turning up the heat: The Nest Learning Thermostat tracks your habits in adjusting the heat in your home for a week, then takes over and adjusts the temperature for you. And it gives you a report on your energy savings.
- Where, oh where has my iPhone gone?: BungeeAir Protect has come up with a wireless “tether” that lets you know if you’ve strayed too far from your iPhone.
Video Bonus: Go along for the ride as Ford spins the tale of its Evos concept car.