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Smart scales and other wonders
April 29, 2014   
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Bathroom scales that not only show a person’s weight, but also provide information about the content of oxygen in their blood and water content in the body; a bath tub that ensures a safe bath; a bedspread that monitors your heart rate during sleep—all these devices have been developed by researchers from the Gdańsk University of Technology in northern Poland as part of a research program called Domestic. The devices form a system that is designed to be a home assistant for the elderly and sick.

Among the devices built as part of the program are the I-scales. These will help doctors monitor patients with chronic cardiac problems, such as an increased risk of heart attack or stroke. Such patients should measure their body weight daily. A sudden increase over a period of 24 hours, for example, by about 1 kg, may be indicative of cardiac failure. The increase in weight in such cases may be due to an accumulation of fluid in the body. Such patients should also regularly measure their heart rate and blood pressure and quickly notify their doctor if anything alarming happens.

The Gdańsk researchers have adapted ordinary bathroom scales to the needs of heart patients, adding extra functions. “These scales not only show your weight, but also the fat and hydrated muscle tissue content in your body,” says Prof. Jerzy Wtorek, who heads the project.

Using the I-scales it is also possible to perform an electrocardiograph (ECG) test—commonly used to measure and interpret the electrical activity of the heart over a period of time and involving the use of electrodes attached to the surface of the skin—and measure blood oxygen saturation to assess the efficiency of the patient’s respiratory and circulatory systems. The device comes with two handles attached by means of cables. It is enough to just grab them to perform the ECG measurement. In order to determine blood oxygen saturation, in turn, the patient places their toe on a built-in sensor.

The scan takes about 30 seconds. The data shown on the display is sent to a computer, where it is analyzed. A database with the patient’s results will be available online for their doctor or caregiver.

Importantly, the system can check if a patient with a heart problem is indeed in a pre-heart attack state or whether his or her heart rate only accelerated because of fatigue, for example. The patient may be asked to do a few sit-ups, for example, and the device will check how the patient’s heart responds.

The Gdańsk researchers are also testing an e-bath tub that will ensure safety while bathing for people with cardiovascular diseases as well as the elderly. The device notifies the caregiver, for example by sending them a text message, that something untoward is happening with the patient. The device will be also measure the bather’s heart rate and the temperature of the water, for example. It is equipped with special motion sensors and temperature measurement sensors as well as ECG electrodes. The sensor providing information about the temperature of the water is particularly important in the case of cardiac patients. For them taking a bath at a temperature that is too high is potentially life-threatening. When the bathing person is submerged, and the heart rate decreases, it is possible to tell that something may be wrong with them. If the system detects such a danger, the bath tub will automatically release the water, and the data collected from the various sensors will be sent to a central station—a small computer. The computer will send the collected information and notifications to the mobile phone of the sick person’s children or doctor.

To use the device, there is no need to buy a new bathtub. It is enough to install the sensors in your existing tub or use a mat with sensors and place it in the bath tub.

The Gdańsk researchers have also developed a device that identifies colors for people who have problems with color recognition. One in 10 people are color blind. The application used by the researchers will come in handy, for example, when shopping on the internet—when the shopper wants to carefully inspect the goods they are about to purchase. Even an ordinary mobile phone, if equipped with the system, will enable the shopper to take a picture of a product and obtain information about the color. The system can also be installed on a computer. A person who has difficulty recognizing colors can indicate a point on the computer screen or in a browser. It is enough to move the mouse, and the label with the name of the color will appear in one corner.

The system comes with a dictionary of 16 colors, including the primary colors (red, green, blue, and yellow), shades of gray, and a few intermediate colors (orange, pink).

The Gdańsk scientists have also developed an e-pipe, a device for people with speech disorders. Such disorders often affect people who have suffered a stroke, but also children with speech impediments. The system consists of an ordinary microphone connected to a computer and featuring a mouthpiece and specialist software. Thanks to special algorithms, the system will record the parameters of the exhaled air stream instead of sounds.

In speech therapy, simple methods are typically used for controlling the exhaled air stream, such as blowing air through a straw on balls of paper. Or a pipe is used with a small ball that should float over the pipe as long as possible if you blow in the right way. These methods, though useful, quickly become boring for patients. In addition, the therapist has no control over whether the patient practices at home and whether they do that in the right way.

The e-pipe therefore comes with a set of games that are designed to encourage patients to train systematically and avoid fatigue resulting from the repetition of the same activities over and over again. One of these games is the “UFO”—a game requiring patients to keep a spacecraft at a certain level, over a dangerous star. This requires continuous monitoring of the level of the air exhaled. If the air stream is not steady enough, the ship will fall onto the star and be burned in its rays. Thanks to the use of the e-pipe, the therapist will be able to track the patient’s activity and his or her progress in therapy.

Another component of the system that is being tested is an e-bedspread that makes it possible to monitor the patient’s heart rate and activity during sleep, when taking a rest in an armchair, or when working at a desk—without the need to attach any electrodes to the body. The researchers are also testing a home alert system—a network of sensors monitoring water and electricity consumption, water leakage, and lighting switching.

The prototypes of the devices developed under the Domestic program have been built thanks to zl.3.6 million in financial support from European Union structural funds. A company has already been selected to evaluate the devices and prepare the procedure for putting them on the market.
Olga Majewska
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