Wearable technology and healthcare – Empatica

As we all wait to see whether the Apple watch catches on, there may be another smartwatch you might want to consider that may tell you more about your health and well-being. Empatica’s Embrace is a slickly-designed smartwatch (USD$199) that slaps around your wrist, has a strap made of Italian leather, and is armed with the latest in sensor gadgetry. Co-founded in 2011 by CEO Matteo Lai and MIT Professor and Director of the Affective Computing Lab, Rosalind Picard, the company operates out of offices in Milan and Boston MA.

Empatica’s products (which also includes a health-monitoring wristband) are equipped with medical standard sensors which monitor heart rate, skin temperature and movement patterns. But most importantly it also measures skin electrical conductance or electrodermal activity (EDA), that spikes in the presence of an oncoming epileptic seizure. The technology was mentioned in a Nature article which also linked to a publication in Neurology  that reported surges in EDA correlated with a measure of brain activity thought to be linked to sudden unexpected death in epilepsy (SUDEP), a common cause of epilepsy-related deaths. Empatica’s patented sensor technology is being used in clinical research in over 135 hospitals, and also by NASA, Stanford, Microsoft, and Intel. Current epilepsy detectors work by monitoring changes in movement that reflect the muscular spasms  and convulsions we often associate with epileptic fits and which take place only during the seizure. However, some forms of epilepsy can take a less visually traumatic form and may just involve someone staring off into blank space for a minute or two. Measuring EDA therefore informs the patient early on if a seizure is oncoming, and works for non-convulsing forms of epilepsy. The company has already garnered some funding from winning the Shark Tank competition, and has recently turned to crowd-funding to generate more funds. They have even committed to a policy of donating one Embrace watch for every watch they sell to a child suffering from epilepsy.

Overall, its a nice product that looks great and is backed by solid scientific research. Some challenges Empatica may face run true with many other forms of wearable technology. Mainly customer uptake (cost may restrict its use to a select population), compliance/long-term adherence, data privacy/ownership, data accuracy, short battery life and the tendency to function only when a phone is nearby. However, wearable tech has already made profound changes to the way things are currently done. Google glasses despite not catching on in the mainstream market, has significantly improved certain procedures like surgery where the surgeon is able to visualize surgery guides or teleconference with an expert based overseas, all done without taking his gloves off. Disneyland has also employed MagicBands that allows people to get on or off rides, pay for food and enter your hotel room, allowing one to travel light. It also lets Disney collect data such as consumer spending habits and human traffic, the latter enabling it to deploy more staff to the relevant areas. Contact lenses are also being designed by Google and Novartis that can monitor blood glucose levels or correct vision by ‘autofocusing’.

Another wearable (if you count phones) tech product or rather software that may play a larger role in healthcare is Apple’s ResearchKit which allows researchers to design apps that can track a person’s health/cognition/motion. Watch the film and you’ll see what I mean. It even goes so far to be able to monitor your gait with the aid of a gyroscope – a cool tool for monitoring Parkinson’s disease patients. This sounds cool but again may be difficult to implement for compliance and data privacy reasons.

There is a low barrier to entry for wearable tech if you are designing something that only tracks “wellness” (e.g. Jawbone/Fitbit) as compared to clinically relevant data. But it is the latter ones such as Empatica’s that would matter the most I imagine.

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