Dartmouth, Clemson test 'computational jewelry' for body monitoring

By Neil Versel
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Dartmouth Professor David Kontz Dartmouth computer scientist David Kotz

Taking the position that smartphones should not be the focal point of body-area networks, researchers at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and Clemson University in South Carolina are creating what they call "computational jewelry," wearable technology to serve as the hub for managing health conditions.

Helped by a three-year, $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation that took effect Oct. 1, the Dartmouth-Clemson team this week is receiving the first prototype for Amulet, a self-contained, low-power device that they hope will demonstrate the efficacy of computational jewelry.

Preliminary work was funded by the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology's Strategic Health IT Advanced Research Projects on Security (SHARPS) program.

The initial design communicates with smartphones by ANT+ wireless connection. The phone is the link to the Internet, but not the computational hub. "It would be comfortable operating away from the Internet most of the time," Dartmouth computer scientist David Kotz, one of two principal investigators on the contract, told MobiHealthNews. (The other principal investigator, Jacob Sorber was Kotz's postdoctoral scholar last year before taking a faculty job in Clemson's School of Computing.)

Amulet runs on an embedded, proprietary operating system. "Android is too heavyweight for this," Kotz said. "I think it's overkill." Ideally, the battery of a health monitor should last for a week on a single charge, he explained, and device availability is a major consideration in body-area networks.

With typical commercial systems, a smartphone or a home base station serves as the communications hub. "That's fine if the smartphone is in your possession," Kotz said, but it often is not. He said his children frequently borrow his phone to use apps in another room of the house, and the phone also might be out of range when charging. "That's not a trustworthy input mechanism," Kotz said.

"Amulet is always with you," he explained. With the right design, people could even wear one while swimming or bathing, Kotz added.

Also, a separate device can be more secure than a smartphone, according to Kotz, a member of the federal Health IT Policy Committee. "Because it's dedicated to health, it's less susceptible to malware," he said.

The researchers at Dartmouth and Clemson are developing two apps to serve as initial case studies, one for stress monitoring and one to track smoking behavior for the twin purpose of cessation programs and behavioral research, Kotz said. Eventually, they will create an application programming interface.

The first prototype will not even be wearable, Kotz said. Starting in 2014, the Dartmouth professor will enlist some of his students to help with physical design of the device, then the researchers might have to re-work some of the electronics to fit whatever design they decide on.

In year two of the contract, they will test Amulet on people for usability and security, while the final year will be spent refining the technology and design.

Kotz does not currently have plans to commercialize the device. "At this point, it's a proof of concept," he said.