The “Quantified Self”: How Sensors Can Allow You to Understand Yourself

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[This article is written by our Guest Editor Dr. Wenzhe Zhou, Co-founder of Brainpage, which is a big data processing & analysis start-up, focused on cloud-based engine for time series data and sensors. The company’s Hadoop-based service provides developers and industry partners easy-to-use, scalable and flexible database and analysis solutions.]

Like nerve endings which translate senses such as touch, smell, heat, etc. into electrical impulses in your nervous system, sensors can translate the physical world into the digital; and help humans become more aware of ourselves in the process. “Quantified Self” is to use algorithms to correlate all these sensor data, and provide valuable information for better living. In our earlier article “Internet of Things: Not Just a Fund Raising Concept Now”, we talked about Sensor technology as one of the fundamental drives for the development of IoT. Key factors for sensor technology adoption depend on the maturity of the technology, cost, and most importantly, experience. Innovative application of existing sensors is also an important factor in the scaling of the industry. In this article, we will introduce a few interesting life science sensor technologies and their “Quantified Self” applications. Some of them are still in research Labs, while others are ready to go for the market.

The Science of Breathing

However, we are most excited about newer technologies that go beyond “what we are doing” and dive deeper into how we relate to the world.  The Calming Technology Lab at Stanford University was founded on a simple premise to reduce the stress in our always connected world.  They asked: “how can we use new technologies such as the quantified self to bring more ‘calm’ into the world?” Led by Neema Moraveji, their breakthrough project involves using breathing sensors to obtain a user’s breathing pattern and extract its relationship with stress levels. Initial papers published by the lab have used breathing based feedback to increase productivity and reduce stress of office workers.  They belive this model can be extended leading to a systematic reduction in stress and improved health. Moreover, mysterious ancient art forms focused around meditation, such as Taiqi, martial arts and Yoga may get scientific explanations for their results.


Sweat Sensors for Traditional Chinese Medication

Chinese Medication has been a mysterious system of knowledge for thousands of years. No one can really explain clearly what it is but the treatments do deliver results. We don’t want to dig into its theory bases here, however, the diagnosis methods used to tell a patient’s treatment status are interesting. Sweat is one of them. After a patient has taken medication, her sweat amount and timing are valuable information for doctors to tell if the medication has the expected impact. However, such readings have depended on the intuition of the doctor limiting the impact to those who can access an increasingly small number of skilled practioners.  Engineers in GuoHao, a Beijing-based sensor technology company, has developed sensors to monitor sweat for medication analysis. Doctors can, for example, remotely access a patient’s account, look at his sweat records, and decide the subsequent treatment. Although this technology faces obsticles in user education for adoption, it holds the potential of bring traditional medicine to a broader audience with greater results.

“Tattoo” For Non-Piercing Glucose Testing

People with type I diabetes must prick their fingers several times a day to test their blood sugar level. Though the pain is minor, the chore interferes with daily life. Researchers in MIT’s Department of Chemical Engineering has been working on a new type of sensor to detect glucose level without the need of finger pricks. The sensing system consists of a “tattoo” of nanoparticles designed to detect glucose, injected below the skin. A device similar to a wristwatch would be worn over the tattoo, displaying the patient’s glucose levels. The “tattoo” would last for a specified length of time, probably six months, before needing to be refreshed. The sensor is based on carbon nanotubes wrapped in a polymer that is sensitive to glucose concentrations. When this sensor encounters glucose, the nanotubes fluoresce, which can be detected by shining near-infrared light on them. Although this technology is still years away from human trials, it may soon start trials in animals. If this becomes real products, people can better prevent Diabetes caused by irregular daily activities such as taking meals, drinks, and medications, through instant glucose level notifications.

Brainwave and the Meditation Lights

What are you thinking? Are you nervous? Modern technologies can help you easily become a “mind-reader”, brainwave technology is one of them. NeuroSky, a US based EEG chipset company, has been focusing on spreading brainwave sensors to mass market. The company has applied brainwave technology into various industries such as sports training, education, and entertainment. In recent activities, they translated brainwaves to a hardware LED light. Users can see their brainwave status through the colors of the light. For example, you will be indicated as “Peace & Soothing” when your brainwave light is blue. Yoga exercisers can use it as a tool to indicate meditation status. “You can easily control your stress by adjusting your breaths,” says Priti, a 20-year Yoga practice and teacher, “I am happy to see my light keep blue, this can certainly help bring meditation to a scientific level.”

We see many exciting sensor technologies to improve life science intelligence. Some of them help explore the mysterious of human body, some fundamentally change the way people obtain their own information, while other apply commonly used sensors to innovative usage. For example, Brainpage has been working on a PC/MAC based application to help professionals prevent Repetitive Strain Injuries (RSI). The Anti-RSI program includes a client software and graph tools. Through analysis of users keyboard and mouse usage, the client application will remind users to take breaks when work intensity could cause RSI. The program also allow users understand their performance through Web graphs, for example, help users find out their professional skill level comparing to other people.

We believe that in the near future, innovative sensor technologies can greatly help humans understand more about ourselves. We hope to see more of such these intriguing projects happening, and more importantly, put to practical use for better living.