Why mHealth wearables may not have to be worn to be effective

Today's mHealth wearables, whether slapped on a wrist, strapped to a chest or lying against skin with a dollop of adhesive, could become tomorrow's mHealth nonwearables while providing all the same features and functionality. At least that's the premise behind a device developed by researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The tool, called BioPhone, can sit in a pocketbook or jacket pocket or on top of a table and collect user data via a smartphone accelerometer. The BioPhone relies on U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved sensors and software algorithms, according to a research paper authored by Javier Hernandez, Daniel J. McDuff and Rosalind W. Picard. A recent MIT Technology Review article also highlighted the tool.

"Applications like BioPhone have great potential to provide more comfortable and continuous health measurements during real-life settings and we demonstrate currently commercially wearable and mobile devices are sensitive enough to capture that information," Hernandez, a research scientist in the Affective Computing Group at MIT's Media Lab, told FierceMobileHealthcare in an interview.

According to Hernandez, however, data security and user privacy remain obstacles for the device.

"[The device] raises serious privacy concerns because most consumers are still not aware that wearable motion sensors can capture more personal information besides obvious motion such as steps," he said. "Also, third-party applications that can be deployed on wearable and mobile platforms such as Android do not need to request users' permissions to start logging motion data."

What's more, Hernandez said, solving such challenges will require input from all stakeholders.

"For instance, cellphone developers could partially mitigate the privacy problem by limiting the sampling rates of the sensors and their resolution, encrypting sensor data, and/or requiring user's permission before installing applications that access these sensors," he said. And as a researcher, Hernandez said, it is critical to explore and highlight the unexpected uses of wearable motion sensors so users can be appropriately informed and privacy policies can be updated accordingly.

"Otherwise, malicious applications that track sensitive information without users' awareness could hinder the potential benefits," he said.

The BioPhone is an early indicator on how wearables may evolve and brings their own set of challenges, according to the researchers. One of those challenges is in estimating physiological parameters in real-life scenarios featuring large ego-motion due to physical activity.

"To make real-life monitoring a reality, researchers will need to develop methods that can handle different sources of variability, such as additional sources of motion, different device orientations and body postures, different demographics," Hernandez said

Still, he said, such hurdles are not insurmountable.

"We are working on making these methods available to other researchers and health-related companies so we can start exploring some of the benefits," Hernandez said. "However, it will still take some more time to have accurate systems that can help detect, monitor and prevent negative health conditions during real-life scenarios. We are committed toward achieving that goal but we acknowledge that we will need as much help as possible from the community."

For more information:
- read the MIT Technology Review article
- read the research paper (.pdf)