1. A computer to manage data acquisition, computation and data interchange with the Cloud
2. A mode of personal deployment, i.e. how they are carried or worn
3. One or several sensors or mechanical additions
Most discussions focus on increasingly ubiquitous smartphones. For some applications a current smartphone can provide all three of the above elements alone. #1 is obvious (i.e. smartphones are computers) and #2 is currently accepted (i.e. people are accustomed to carrying ‘phones’).
Other wearable devices such as watches and bands are likely to increasingly become competitive options to smartphones when they are found to be more convenient or applicable to specific needs (e.g. waterproof for swimmers).
In the case of #3, smartphones have built-in accelerometers and GPS sensors that are used to gather data, but they are rather limited. A large proportion of current mobile health apps only use smartphone hardware capabilities so are limited to addressing a narrow range of needs, e.g. promoting health by auditing and reporting on physical activity.
For most future applications specialized sensors will be required. A good example is AliveCor’s Heart Monitor that I covered in a post last week: supplementary sensors to accurately detect heart activity are added in piggy-back style to the back of a smartphone that runs an app.
There are other examples of additional capabilities added to a smartphone. The PillJogger offering uses an app to remind patients when to take their medication, and a piggybacked device (an electronic pillbox dubbed the MedWheel) to carry the medications and track compliance (i.e. that the patient has taken their pill at the right time). A short video demonstrates this:
It is more likely that sensors and mechanical devices will have to be physically separate, but able to communicate electronically. Fortunately, a standard already exists: the Wireless Body Area Network (WBAN) later renamed the Body Area Network (BAN) – see the Wikipedia entry.
Early BAN proposals assumed the initial applications would be for severe diseases and important medical events, possibly employing implanted sensors. However, these are probably the most challenging applications. It is more likely that we will first see applications that provide utility to large groups of consumers and are less dangerous if they fail.
Meanwhile, some devices use near field communication (NFC) to exchange data in a batch fashion, but continuous communication between devices is likely to be preferred.