Surroundables: A new kind of connected devices in works

Forget about wearables. Soon a new technology will be available to enable doctors to keep up with every move you make inside your own home without wearing anything on your wrist.

That piece of technology will come in a box that is similar to a Wi-Fi router, sitting in your home and tracking all kinds of physiological signals — including breathing, heart rate, sleep, gait, and more.

Currently in the testing phase, the project is a brainchild of Dina Katabi, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT. She believes that this device has the potential to replace an array of bulky, uncomfortable gear we currently need to get clinical data about the body.

Speaking at MIT Technology Review’s EmTech conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Katabi said the box has been in development for the last several years; she explained that it can detect the change in electromagnetic field surrounding us, even if it’s a tiny change involved in breathing and sleeping.

Her device transmits a low-power wireless signal throughout a one- or two-bedroom apartment (even through walls), with the signal reflecting off people’s bodies. The device then analyzes the data using machine learning to extract physiological data.

So far, it has been installed in over 200 homes of both healthy people and those with conditions like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, depression, and pulmonary diseases.

The next step is to commercialize the technology; to that end Katabi co-founded Emerald Innovations and has already started working with biotech and pharmaceutical companies for studies.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves — back to that EmTech conference…

During the presentation, Katabi showed off data gathered over eight weeks in the home of a Parkinson’s patient, indicating that his gait improved around 5 or 6 each morning — right around the time he took his medication.

“Not only do you start understanding the life of the patient, but you start understanding the impact of the medication,” she said. The same information could also help doctors figure out how some medications help certain patients but not others.

For the healthy population, the device could monitor sleep, including individual sleep stages, with no changes to the way they sleep or what they wear. That’s a massive difference from sleep studies conducted today — they typically involve a lab setting with a lot of electrodes and wires connected to one’s body.

Also, because it would be installed in the home, the device could track the resident over time, which could be useful for watching people with chronic conditions.

Since privacy is on everyone’s mind these days, Katabi had to add that the device works with user’s consent and wouldn’t be able to work from a distance. So snooping on other people won’t be possible. Also, all the data gathered is encrypted and limited to certain designated recipients.

Finally, in addition to healthcare applications, the device could have other uses to, say, make smart homes – smarter. For instance, it would know when you sit on a sofa to watch TV, and would connect to a smart TV to play your favorite show without you touching the remote.

Impressive or scary? You be the judge.