A new smartphone app called iHeal aims to revolutionize the prevention and treatment of drug abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder. By combining the processing power and connectivity of a smartphone, and a wireless biosensor on the patient’s wrist, iHeal can detect when a patient is stressed and at risk of relapsing or suffering a panic attack.
The setup is quite simple: The patient wears a wristband that measures body motion, heart rate, skin temperature, and electrical activity. The wristband connects to a smartphone via Bluetooth, where an Android app analyzes the data. If the app detects a spike in your stress or arousal level, it sounds an alarm and asks the user to input their perceived level of stress, current activities, and any drug cravings.
For the time being, iHeal’s developer — Edward Boyer from the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and completely unrelated to Apple — is merely collecting data. In a later version of the iHeal software, this data will be used to deliver “personalized, multimedia drug prevention interventions precisely at the moment of greatest need,” presumably in the form of pre-recorded videos from friends and family saying “I love you,” “think of the children,” and the like.
This preliminary study also focused on the privacy and ethical concerns of such a system. Boyer points out that the stigma of wearing a visible wristband obviously isn’t very good for recovering drug addicts, and that a wristwatch with built in sensors or an anklet might be a good idea. The Bluetooth link between sensor and phone must also be adequately secure. To this end, a low-power signal that can only travel a few meters is used, and the wristband isn’t “discoverable.”
iHeal is an ideal example of the power of mobile computing, and a delightful taster of what the future holds. For now you have to carry a smartphone in your pocket and wear a wristband, but in a few years computers and sensors will be small enough to be truly wearable. You’ll have a t-shirt with a built in sensors (using inkjet-printed graphene, perhaps), and an Arduino-like microcontroller that’s small enough to be woven into your jacket. Eventually, of course, we’ll also have bionic implants and other internal sensors that feed data through a wearable computer to a wearable contact lens display.