A small sensor just the size of a quarter can transform an ordinary face covering into an all-in-one health monitor, according to a team of engineers from Northwestern University.
This new invention, which the engineers call a “Fitbit for the face,” uses a magnet to attach to any N95, cloth, surgical face mask. Tests on the FaceBit showed that it performs with almost the same accuracy as clinical-grade devices and, what’s more, it can last for more than 11 days before needing to be recharged.
Wearable and implantable health tech has been a focus of our reporting in recent months. It’s being heralded as the future of fitness and healthcare, and new developments are coming thick and fast. Amongst the excitement, though, there is growing disquiet about the implications for individual privacy and autonomy.
Facebit: new wearable tech
The new “FaceBit” tech allows a person to keep follow their respiration rate, heart rate, and even mask wear time through a smartphone app which communicates wirelessly with the chip.
The study’s authors say the FaceBit can alert users of problems in real-time. The sensor can also detect problems with a user’s face mask, including a poor fit or air leak.
The device takes its energy from the user themself. As well as a tiny battery, the chip receives energy from ambient sources, including the wearer’s movements and the heat of their breath. This reduces the need to charge and keeps the battery fresh longer.
“We wanted to design an intelligent face mask for health care professionals that does not need to be inconveniently plugged in during the middle of a shift,” says Josiah Hester, who led the device development, in a university release.
“We augmented the battery’s energy with energy harvesting from various sources, which means that you can wear the mask for a week or two without having to charge or replace the battery.”
The team began its research by interviewing doctors and nurses who constantly have to wear a well-fitting face mask. Health care professionals regularly have to go through a 20-minute “fit test” to make sure their N95 masks provide a proper seal on their faces.
While the FaceBit can’t replace the tests that are used to determine whether the mask is properly fitted, it can warn users if the mask isn’t fitting tightly by sending an alert to their phone.
“If you wear a mask for 12 hours or longer, sometimes your face can become numb,” Hester says.
“You might not even realize that your mask is loose because you cannot feel it or you are too burnt out to notice. We can approximate the fit-testing process by measuring mask resistance. If we see a sudden dip in resistance, that indicates a leak has formed, and we can alert the wearer.”
Mini biological computers: the future of mRNA technology?
The delivery technology (liposomes) that has been used in the creation of the new mRNA vaccines for COVID-19 could now be used to create microscopic “biological computers” that monitor the body from the inside out.
Synthetic liposomes are basically small bubbles and they have been used for some time to deliver drugs for conditions like cancer and other diseases. In order to deliver their “payload” these liposomes must communicate with cell membranes in order to pass through.
Membranes are essential to the communication between cells and help ensure that the right things go to the right places, either within the cells they are produced in or outside them.
Scientists at the University of New South Wales used DNA “nanostructures” to manipulate synthetic liposomes in ways that make it easier for them to pass through membranes and deliver their freight.
By modifying the shape, porosity and reactivity of liposomes, new application could include building small molecular systems that sense their environment and respond to a signal to release a cargo, such as a drug molecule when it nears its target.
CLICK HERE TO READ MORE ABOUT THIS NEW TECHNOLOGY
With regard to the real-time health data the FaceBit can track, the device can track heart rate by sensing the subtle motions people make with their head as they breathe.
“Your heart is pushing a lot of blood through the body, and the ballistic force is quite strong,” Hester explains. “We were able to sense that force as the blood travels up a major artery to the face.”
The FaceBit can also detect elevated stress by monitoring breathing patterns. When it detects such patterns, the device can use the information to alert the wearer that it might be time to take a break.
The researchers hope that the next version of the FaceBit will be battery-free, using just the wearer’s body heat and the sun as power sources.
“FaceBit provides a first step toward practical on-face sensing and inference, and provides a sustainable, convenient, comfortable option for general health monitoring for COVID-19 frontline workers and beyond,” Hester concludes.
“I’m really excited to hand this off to the research community to see what they can do with it.”
The facebit and other new wearable tech: implications
Another group of scientists has reported that they’ve created a dynamic respirator mask that can change its pore size automatically in response to environmental changes, such as pollution and exercise.
Given that researchers are now pouring time and money into wearable facemask tech, it seems reasonable to assume that facemasks are not likely to disappear any time soon.
But the negative implications of these developments in wearable tech pale in comparison to those of new forms of implantable tech that are already in advanced stages of preparation.
Recently, for instance, we reported on a brain stimulation device that uses the power of AI to improve cognitive function. The researchers hope that it could be used soon to treat a whole variety of mental illnesses and conditions painlessly and undetectability for users. The research team is now preparing for clinical trials.
“This system can read brain activity, ‘decode’ from that when a patient is having difficulty, and apply a small burst of electrical stimulation to the brain to boost them past that difficulty,” one of the lead researchers said.
“The analogy I often use is an electric bike. When someone’s pedaling but having difficulty, the bike senses it and augments it. We’ve made the equivalent of that for human mental function.”
But the fact that one of the principal funders for this research is DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) should give us some pause to reflect on its other potential purposes and implications.
If the use of such technology becomes widespread, what will it mean for us as autonomous humans?
Will we still be in control of ourselves, or will we surrender control in a way that might make it impossible to take back?
Questions that were once restricted to science-fictions writers are now being realised as imminent concerns for all of us.
Can we maintain our control – and our humanity?
Only time will tell.
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