A recent project — MD2K — won $10.8 million from the National Institutes of Health to focus on developing hardware, including wearables, and software that gathers and analyzes health information generated by wearable sensors.

The main purpose of MD2K is to use these sensors and data to be aware of and stop adverse health events from occurring, such as addiction relapse.  The project is designed for clinicians and researchers, but its tools are available to anyone, so they could end up being a part of consumer wearable gadgets.

Current commercial wearable devices don’t work well for research purposes because they only collect a small amount of health data about users, and they only share specific results, instead of raw sensor data. Also, their batteries are not able to handle a full day’s worth of constant data collection.

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Therefore, the MD2K team, which consists of several different universities, has produced a group of gadgets that are able to gather a plethora of raw, reliable sensor data for a full day, before needing to charge.

Because MD2K’s work is open-source, companies like Garmin, Samsung and Apple may use the project’s ideas to design sensors and apps that are similar for their own wearables. For example, MD2K’s MotionSense “HRV” wristband has several kinds of LED sensors built in its underside — red, infrared, and green. Most fitness trackers and commercial smart watches have only green LEDs.

Sensors test light absorption of the blood

The MD2K is able to use the different lights to study how a user’s blood absorbs the various sensor lights, allowing it to understand heart rate variability, and other variations in heartbeats, rather than just measuring a wearer’s heart rate in terms of beats per minute.

By understanding the heart-rate variability data, along with respiratory signals, it is possible to gauge an individual’s level of stress.  Ohio State University professor, Emre Ertin, who developed MD2K’s wearable gadgets, states that manufacturers could easily integrate this “stress biomarker” into their devices.

Students at Ohio State and Northwestern universities are already in the process of trying to understand the reasoning behind when and why abstinent smokers relapse, by using MD2K. This smoking research pulls data from many sources, including the MotionSense wristband’s accelerometer and gyrometer, which study the wearer’s wrist position and movement to pinpoint smoking gestures. Eventually, having gathered enough information, they will be able to anticipate user’s next moves, and send intervention messages to participants, just in time.

It appears likely that this valuable technology may end up in consumer wearables, to be used in some manner, but using this technology for things like helping smokers who are trying to quit is really unknown territory, and it will take more time to figure out if these mobile gadgets will be helpful or not for the long term.