Health IT

Beyond the activity tracker: 4 intriguing uses for wearable sensors in health research

Wearable sensors are getting a lot of buzz in the consumer health world right now, but there’s a whole other world where the applications for body sensors are getting even more creative.

Researchers in labs are using all kinds of technologies that consumers most likely will never see. I got a glimpse into this fascinating underground world of sensors this week at the Body Sensor Networks conference in Cambridge. It’s a technical conference focused more the sensors themselves than the applications of them, but there were a few posters and presentations around applications that really stuck out.

Pharmaceutical clinical trials

I talked with someone from Hidalgo, a UK-based company that develops physiological monitors commercialized under the brand Equivital, who shared that the company had a growing pipeline of pharmaceutical customers looking for better ways to collect data from clinical trial participants.


The company was first approached by a Big Pharma that wanted to monitor more than 200 participants across three countries, day and night, for extended periods of time during a Phase 3 study. Protocol for the trial required the pharma to securely collect core temperature and heart rate data from the patients. Hidalgo provided the sensors and software platform to export the data automatically into the clinical trial database.

Mental health screening

Alex Pentland, the director of the MIT Media Lab Entrepreneurship Program, talked during his keynote about applications for sensors in passively detecting signs of depression. The gold standard of screening for depression is a review of family and health history and an interview with the patient. But the problem is that humans won’t always be forthcoming and honest, which can lead to missed diagnoses. Rather than ask a patient about his social habits, why not use a tool he carries every day to interact socially – a cellphone – to find that data passively?

Other kinds of sensors could be useful here, too. One poster presented at BSN explored the use of sensors to pick up vocal biomarkers for depression. University of Southern California researchers have also used the sensor technology from the Kinect system to pick up visual sign of depression.

Quantifying motion beyond walking, running and jumpingsensor picture

One of the most interesting displays I saw was this one from University of Alabama Huntsville researchers. They developed an app that uses a smartphone’s sensors to capture and record the physical activity of a manual wheelchair user. The idea, one of the researchers told me, is that individuals who use a wheelchair still need exercise, but it’s hard for them to quantify their physical activity. mWheelness uses a magnet attached to the wheel, along with a mount for the smartphone, to do just that.

Evaluating joint mobility

A team at Tyndall National Institute is developing a glove made of bend sensors, pressure sensors and a 3-axis accelerometer to measure joint mobility in the hand. The intention is to provide a better way for physicians or researchers to evaluate and monitor arthritis.

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