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Communications of the ACM


Smartphones and Health Systems Research at Intel Seattle

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Ruben Ortega

Intel Labs in Seattle Washington hosted an open house September 28, 2009, to showcase their research projects. (   The lab works as a research facility focused on technology that assists in every day life. The research areas feature robots that can plug themselves into a standard three-prong outlet by sensing the electrical current coming from the wall. Another piece of amazing research is a wireless power system where speakers can be powered across the room from a wireless power source.  The research that captured my imagination the most is the health focused research.

Intel's Health Systems research encompasses a myriad of projects that are all focused on long-term health monitoring and care systems. Since most people dislike carrying an extra health dedicated device, the research has focused on adding sensors to technologies people carry with them everywhere, smartphones. The two specific areas with the most potential for near-term change are (a) using sensors already present in smartphones (accelerometers, GPS) to monitor the movements and mobility of the wearer, and (b) building applications that encourage ad-hoc team building and tracking for people to help accomplish their health goals.

Sensor technologies on cell phones can be adapted to help do long-term tracking of family and loved ones. Accelerometers could be used to identify different kinds of motion and measurement of "gait" in people's movement. By tracking and measuring the "gait" of someone's walking over time, the technology could help identify when someone is moving normally or if something has changed and an individual's walking gait is impaired.  The information that is captured on the device could either be stored and analyzed locally, or uploaded to caregivers and health care providers. Given the ubiquity of cell phones, the extra cost of adding sensors and inputs would be minimized as the large volume production costs should drive the price down.

A nearer term application for smart phones would be to use their abilities to connect people via data sharing technologies to form social health support groups. You could easily imagine using an application to create teams of individuals who are working to improve their own health.  The first-best uses would be to create teams that encourage weight loss through the creation of ad-hoc competitions modeling TV shows like "The Biggest Loser".  Using peer-pressure, peer-support  and real-time feedback individuals could track how their peers are doing in improving their weight management over time. Other potential applications would be creating a tool so that compliance is tracked among groups of people in taking medication or monitoring their insulin level, or providing a pregnancy application to contact other people like themselves who are working through the trials of a pregnancy and want to contact someone who is going through it at the same time to ask: "Is This Normal?"

The research being done at the Intel lab is still in the formative stages. However,  I am eager to see this technology made into a product and launched so that it moves from "good idea" to useful to its intended customers.


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