Mundane items grow smarter with sensors

New York TimesMay 11, 2014 

In the past few years, sensors have become small and inexpensive enough to make the monitoring of practically everything possible.

There are those familiar fitness bands and smartwatches from companies like Fitbit, Jawbone and Samsung, which monitor vital signs and activities. But that is just the beginning. In the name of living healthier lives, sensors may soon give us updates on the whole family, and the whole house – from the bathroom sink to the garage.

“Data is power,” said Peggy Smedley, editorial director of Connected World magazine. “If you know how to interpret it, you can use it to improve your life.”

Or at least to improve your brushing technique. Companies like Grush have crowdfunded projects to equip toothbrushes with gyroscopes and accelerometers that sense tilt, angle and velocity of brush strokes and send that information to a smartphone.

Safeguards and health

With the Grush, a project on the crowdfunding website Indiegogo, young brushers play a game on a mirror-mounted smartphone; playing along with the phone, using the brush to fight monsters, fly airplanes or groom a pet, the child learns proper brushing techniques.

Results can then be uploaded to the cloud so that the family dentist can see how well the child is doing and recommend ways to improve. The price for one of the toothbrushes, two replacement heads and access to two games is a $49 donation to the project.

Sensors are also allowing parents to use their smartphones to check in on the crib. Wrap the Owlet Smart Sock around your infant’s ankle, and you’ll be able to use an app to keep an eye on body temperature, heart rate, blood oxygen level, sleep quality and rollovers. The device is available to preorder for $250.

Companies are even using sensors to glean health information from diapers. Put the Smart Diaper from Pixie Scientific on your child, and once the diaper is wet inside, scan its QR code patch; reagents in the diaper detect whether your baby has a urinary tract infection, is dehydrated or may be developing kidney problems. The disposable diaper is undergoing trials and has not yet been approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

Monitors for elderly

Sensors can also help the elderly and their caregivers. An innovation called the ingestible sensing system by Proteus Digital Health, which has been approved by the FDA, ensures that patients have taken their medication by using an ingestible sensor the size of a grain of sand that is swallowed along with a dose of pills.

Inside the stomach, copper and magnesium within the sensor combine with stomach fluids to create an electrical charge that is detected by a lightweight sensor taped to the body. The data can be sent via Bluetooth to a smartphone or a tablet and then to a secure website for caregivers to see, showing that the dose has been taken.

Sensors also are helping caregivers see and respond to what is happening while patients are on their own. GrandCare Systems and other companies make devices to monitor a person’s home. If the patient, say, walks out the front door at 2 a.m. or opens the refrigerator 15 times an hour, the caregiver will get a phone call or a text message.

Even lights are being considered as a way to monitor health. George Yianni, a system architect at Philips, said sensors placed in light bulbs could notify a caregiver if a patient turned a light on or off in a way that broke with the usual routine.

Automakers are looking into using sensors to make the roads safer. Ford, for example, is examining whether technology can sense whether drivers are drowsy and, to prevent them from becoming distracted, block incoming mobile phone calls.

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