Wearable Medical Computing and the Amulet Project

Health care is one of the most promising areas for employing wearable devices. Wearable mobile health sensors can track activities (e.g., count steps or caloric expenditure), monitor vital signs including heart rate and blood pressure, measure biometric data (e.g., glucose levels and weight), and provide alerts to medical emergencies including heart failures, falls, and shocks.

Applying wearable computing to support mobile health (mHealth) is promising but involves significant risks. For instance, there are security issues related to the reliability of the devices and sensors employed, the accuracy of the data collected, and the privacy of sensitive information.

The Amulet bracelet-style prototype for developers enables users to control its settings

The Amulet bracelet-style prototype for developers enables users to control its settings

Under the federally funded Amulet project, an interdisciplinary team of Dartmouth College and Clemson University researchers is investigating how wearable devices can effectively address medical problems while ensuring wearability, usability, privacy, and security for mHealth applications. The project aims to develop pieces of “computational jewelry” and a software framework for monitoring them. This computational jewelry set comprises wearable mobile health devices collectively named Amulet. An Amulet device could be worn as a discreet pendant or bracelet that would interact with other wearable health sensors that constitute the wearer’s wireless body-area network (WBAN). The Amulet device would serve as a “hub,” tracking health information from wearable health sensors and securely sending data to other health devices or medical professionals.

The project’s goals are multifold. Regarding the hardware, we’re focusing on designing small and unobtrusive form factors, efficient power sources, and sensing capabilities. With respect to the software, we’re concentrating on processing and interpreting the digital signs coming from the sensors, effectively communicating and synchronizing data with external devices, and managing encrypted data.

Amulet’s multiprocessor hardware architecture includes an application processor that performs computationally intensive tasks and a coprocessor that manages radio communications and internal sensors. Amulet’s current prototypes contain an accelerometer and a gyroscope to monitor the wearer’s motion and physical activities, a magnetometer, a temperature sensor, a light sensor, and a microphone. To save power, the application processor is powered off most of the time, while the coprocessor handles all real-time device interactions.

By employing event-driven software architecture, Amulet enables applications to survive routine processor shutdowns. Amulet is reactive, running only when an event of interest occurs. To handle such events, programmers can define their application as a finite-state machine and set appropriate functions. Amulet’s architecture enables applications to identify the computational states that should be retained between events. Explicitly managing program state (rather than implicitly managing state in a thread’s run-time stack) enables the run-time system to efficiently save the application state to persistent memory and power down the main processor without harming applications.

Amulet provides a secure solution that ensures the accuracy and the integrity of the data sensed and transmitted, continuous availability of the services provided (e.g., data sensing and processing and sending alerts and notifications), and access to the device’s data and services only by authorized parties after their successful authentication. Two key features enable Amulet to provide security in mHealth applications: sandboxing and the authorization manager. The former enforces access control, protects memory, and restricts the execution of event handlers. The latter enables applications to run small tasks until their completion, managing all resources by receiving requests and forwarding them to a corresponding service manager.

Amulet also aims to protect privacy, enabling users to control what is sensed and stored, where it is stored, and how it is shared (with whom). Amulet devices use privacy policies to protect patients’ sensitive information, which ensures confidentiality through authorized access and controlled sharing.

To guarantee easy wearability, the Amulet team focuses on understanding the user’s wishes, needs, and requirements and translating them into appropriate design decisions. Amulet provides a list of principles and guidelines for wearability, which will aid designers in providing high levels of comfort, aesthetics, ergonomics, and discretion in their projects.

Amulet includes a framework to support stakeholders involved in similar projects during all phases of development. It is intended to aid developers and designers from industry or academia. Amulet provides a general-purpose solution for body-area mobile health, complementing the capabilities of a smartphone and facilitating the development of applications that integrate one or more mHealth wearable devices.

Amulet also provides intuitive interfaces and interaction methods for user input and output, employing multimodal approaches that include gestures and haptics. Amulet has developed and continues to refine bracelet-style prototypes with a variety of envisioned applications, including: emergency responders (e.g., providing immediate notifications and quick responses in medical emergencies), stress monitoring, smoking cessation, diet (e.g., bite counting), and physical therapy (e.g., knee sensors).

Dr. Vivian Genaro Motti

Dr. Vivian Genaro Motti

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dr. Vivian Genaro Motti holds a PhD in Human Computer Interaction from the Université catholique de Louvain in Belgium. She is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the School of Computing at Clemson University in Clemson, SC. She works on the Amulet project, which is funded by a three-year, $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s Computer Systems Research program. As part of the Amulet project, Vivian is investigating how to properly ensure wearability and privacy in wearable applications for mobile health. Vivian has a BA in Biomedical Informatics and an MS in Human Computer Interaction from University of Sao Paulo in Brazil. Her main research interests are human computer interaction, medical applications, wearable devices and context awareness.

This appears in Circuit Cellar 288, July 2014.

3-D Printing with Liquid Metals

by Collin Ladd and Michael Dickey

Our research group at North Carolina State University has been studying new ways to use simple processes to print liquid metals into 3-D shapes at room temperature. 3-D printing is gaining popularity because of the ability to quickly go from concept to reality to design, replicate, or create objects. For example, it is now possible to draw an object on a computer or scan a physical object into software and have a highly detailed replica within a few hours.

3-D printing with liquid metals: a line of dollsMost 3-D printers currently pattern plastics, but printing metal objects is of particular interest because of metal’s physical strength and electrical conductivity. Because of the difficulty involved with metal printing, it is considered one of the “frontiers” of 3-D printing.
There are several approaches for 3-D printing of metals, but they all have limitations, including high temperatures (making it harder to co-print with other materials) and prohibitively expensive equipment. The most popular approach to printing metals is to use lasers or electron beams to sinter fine metal powders together at elevated temperatures, one layer at a time, to form solid metal parts.

Our approach uses a simple method to enable direct printing of liquid metals at room temperature. We print liquid metal alloys primarily composed of gallium. These alloys have metallic conductivity and a viscosity similar to water. Unlike mercury, gallium is not considered toxic nor does it evaporate. We extrude this metal from a nozzle to create droplets that can be stacked to form 3-D structures. Normally, two droplets of liquid (e.g., water) merge together into a single drop if stacked on each other. However, these metal droplets do not succumb to surface-tension effects because the metal rapidly forms a solid oxide “skin” on its surface that mechanically stabilizes the printed structures. This skin also makes it possible to extrude wires or metal fibers.

This printing process is important for two reasons. First, it enables the printing of metallic structures at room temperature using a process that is compatible with other printed materials (e.g., plastics). Second, it results in metal structures that can be used for flexible and stretchable electronics.

 

Stretchable electronics are motivated by the new applications that emerge by building electronic functionality on deformable substrates. It may enable new wearable sensors and textiles that deform naturally with the human body, or even an elastic array of embedded sensors that could serve as a substitute for skin on a prosthetic or robot-controlled fingertip. Unlike the bendable polyimide-based circuits commonly seen on a ribbon cable or inside a digital camera, stretchable electronics require more mechanical robustness, which may involve the ability to deform like a rubber band. However, a stretchable device need not be 100% elastic. Solid components embedded in a substrate (e.g., silicone) can be incorporated into a stretchable device if the connections between them can adequately deform.

Using our approach, we can direct print freestanding wire bonds or circuit traces to directly connect components—without etching or solder—at room temperature. Encasing these structures in polymer enables these interconnects to be stretched tenfold without losing electrical conductivity. Liquid metal wires also have been shown to be self-healing, even after being completely severed. Our group has demonstrated several applications of the liquid metal in soft, stretchable components including deformable antennas, soft-memory devices, ultra-stretchable wires, and soft optical components.

Although our approach is promising, there are some notable limitations. Gallium alloys are expensive and the price is expected to rise due to gallium’s expanding industrial use. Nevertheless, it is possible to print microscale structures without using much volume, which helps keep the cost down per component. Liquid metal structures must also be encased in a polymer substrate because they are not strong enough to stand by themselves for rugged applications.

Our current work is focused on optimizing this process and exploring new material possibilities for 3-D printing. We hope advancements will enable users to print new embedded electronic components that were previously challenging or impossible to construct using a 3-D printer.

Collin Ladd (claddc4@gmail.com)  is pursuing a career in medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, SC. Since 2009, he has been the primary researcher for the 3-D printed liquid metals project at The Dickey Group, which is headed by Michael Dickey. Collin’s interests include circuit board design and robotics. He has been an avid electronics hobbyist since high school.

Collin Ladd (claddc4@gmail.com) is pursuing a career in medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, SC. Since 2009, he has been the primary researcher for the 3-D printed liquid metals project at The Dickey Group, which is headed by Michael Dickey. Collin’s interests include circuit board design and robotics. He has been an avid electronics hobbyist since high school.

Michael Dickey (mddickey@ncsu.edu) is an associate professor at the North Carolina State University Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. His research includes studying soft materials, thin films and interfaces, and unconventional nanofabrication techniques. His research group’s projects include stretchable electronics, patterning gels, and self-folding sheets.

Michael Dickey (mddickey@ncsu.edu) is an associate professor at the North Carolina State University Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. His research includes studying soft materials, thin films and interfaces, and unconventional nanofabrication techniques. His research group’s projects include stretchable electronics, patterning gels, and self-folding sheets.