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Winter 1999-2000
Vol. 62, No. 2

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Coming to a Drugstore Near You:
Smart Tools in Your Future

The projects being pursued by researchers at the Center for Future Health are designed to address health issues that affect many people. Some of them are just beginning but others are well along, and creation of a few prototype devices is coming soon--very likely within the next two to five years.

Among the tools in development:

  • "Memory glasses," which a person with early dementia or memory problems might wear. The computerized eyewear could automatically identify certain patterns (representing, for example, loved ones, street signs, or grocery items) and in response offer sotto voce instructions. ("The person you're looking at is your brother Bill." "This is Oak Street; turn left if you want to go home." "You have bought milk and eggs, but you forgot the bread.") One goal: Lengthening the time such patients can live on their own at home.
  • A "melanoma monitor," a passive system that takes an image of your body, perhaps once a week in the bathroom, and compares each image to the previous one. When a mole starts growing, you receive an alert to see a doctor, and you take along a computer printout with details of the mole's size and how it has changed.
  • A "smart bandage" that through powerful computing could quickly identify a tiny amount of bacteria developing in a wound and determine which antibiotics it's resistant to and identify alternatives that could be used to fight the infection--thereby dramatically cutting elapsed time before treatment can start.
  • Convenient monitoring tools, such as a wristwatch-like device that constantly checks pulse, respiration, and temperature. This could be useful in watching out for infection after a patient leaves the hospital, or for someone who has difficulty breathing. Such sensors also could be part of a "smart bed" that takes in this information during sleep.
  • A "gait monitor" that would pick up subtle signs of stroke or early indications of disorders like Parkinson's disease. Often an impaired gait emerges as the first symptom of Parkinson's but goes unnoticed for months or even years.
  • A digital assistant as easy to speak with, in plain English, as the Star Trek computer, which people could turn to with many of their health care questions. A conversation might go this way: "I think my son has an ear infection." The computer then responds with some questions: "What is his temperature?" "Has he vomited?" The outcome might be: "The last four times your son had these symptoms, it turned out to be nothing. Let him sleep through the night, then check him again in the morning."
  • An "anger alert" device equipped with artificial-intelligence software that recognizes certain phrases and tones of voice and lets the speaker know, gently and unobtrusively, that his emotional level is rising, and suggests alternate phrases or actions that could head off potentially destructive rage.
  • An array of sensors based on new types of materials under development at the University. Such sensors might be used to detect minute amounts of bacteria on food; determine whether water is safe to drink; or check your breath and sweat for electrolyte levels, monitor breathing, and send an early warning when dehydration is possible.
  • A "rehab trainer" program that watches your movements during rehabilitation, then compares them to the correct way of doing the exercises and offers any necessary advice such as, "You're dropping your shoulder too much" or "Stretch your left leg for 10 seconds, not just 5." It's based on the Tai Chi Trainer recently developed by the MIT Media Lab.
  • "Smart socks," being developed in collaboration with a researcher at Georgia Tech, which automatically sense the amount of pressure within the wearer's foot and signal when an ulcer is imminent. Foot ulcers affect the majority of people with spinal cord injuries and also are a constant threat to people with diabetes.
  • "Smart clothing" equipped with optical fibers that have been developed by Georgia Tech researchers. A garment incorporating such fibers, for example, could be a lifesaver at a disaster scene. Detecting injuries like bullet wounds or crushed limbs, sensors in the garment would alert medics at a triage center, who could then decide which patients needed immediate retrieval.


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