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The runup to Mobile World Congress 2016: a smartwatch app that detects epileptic seizures and texts a warning

January 16th, 2016 |  Published in Mobile World Congress 2016


There's an app for that


Gregory P. Bufithis, Esq. / Founder and CEO of EAM Capital Partners


16 January 2016 – Superlatives soon get exhausted when describing MWC’s growth in scope and scale over the years (this year will be my 6th appearance) with an attendance that exceeded 93,000 last year … which exceeded 2014 (85,000+) and 2013 (76,000+). It has long been an essential date in the mobile industry calendar.

Why? Because 38% of internet traffic (up from 26% 3 years ago) comes from mobile devices and mobile is very quickly becoming not “mobile first” but “mobile only”.

Smartphones and mobile devices have given each of us a “second brain”, allowing us to navigate new cities without getting lost and speak fluently in different languages.

But these devices, which have made our lives increasingly convenient, are soon going to shift from our pockets to our inner bodies — think iris overlays and brain implants — making us more networked and connected and controlled than ever before.

It is why the fastest growing area is in mobile health (mHealth) apps and the floor space devoted to it at MWC  just keeps growing. Over the 5 days of the event (the show runs Monday to Thursday but there are tons of off-site events on Sunday) it is the area that draws most of my attention, most especially because of the work I have been able to do over the last few years with IBM Watson’s advanced image analytics and cognitive capabilities in mHealth.

And I prepare by diving into the copious material provided in New Scientist magazine which provides in depth analysis of various mHealth apps. This week’s issue focused on Kathryn Clark’s epilepsy and how she was hit by a tonic-clonic seizure – the kind that spreads to the entire brain and leaves the victim convulsing on the floor. She was worried about looking after her children, then aged 2 and 4, if the seizures were coming back.

Innovation saves the day

Her husband Ryan, an independent game developer, had an idea: program a smartwatch to detect movement characteristic of a seizure and text him a warning. He realized it should be possible, and took a week off work to throw his idea together. Working with his wife, they created software that does just that, and made it freely available online.

Motion detector

Devices that detect seizures are not new – researchers have tested sweat-sensing wristbands that can detect seizures via electrical currents travelling across the skin – but Ryan and Kathryn’s detection system has an advantage. Ryan chose to work with the $100 Pebble, one of the cheapest smartwatches on the market. This means the program, called Pebble Seizure Detect, is instantly available to any of the 1.5 million Pebble owners who might be living with epilepsy, with no need to buy anything else.

The Pebble has an accelerometer that can detect the wearer’s motion, so Ryan wrote code to spot rhythmic movements in the frequency range seen during tonic-clonic seizures. He figured out what that range was by watching YouTube videos of people having seizures and mimicking their motions while wearing the watch. He then compared the results against scientific literature. If the watch detects motions that go above a certain threshold, it sends an alarm to the wearer’s phone. The wearer has 15 seconds to turn the alarm off if they are not having a seizure.

Panic button

And for those of us “in the biz”, there definitely are false positives.  Ryan noted that brushing your teeth is almost exactly the same frequency and strength as having a seizure, so the software will definitely pick that up. He warns that it can also miss real seizures if the arm wearing the watch gets trapped under the person’s body, for instance. Bottom line:  it is not foolproof. It shouldn’t be relied upon, but makes it more likely that a seizure will be detected.

If the alarm is not cancelled, the app automatically sends a text to predetermined numbers. The text includes the wearer’s last known GPS location so the recipient can come and help. The app also has a “panic” button. If the wearer feels a seizure coming on, they can press it to warn their contacts.

They have shared the software with contacts at the BC Children’s Hospital in Vancouver, where Kathryn used to work as a counsellor for people with epilepsy. By working with other neurology specialists they want to get the word out and let people know it’s available.

And it is a bit of a mind game, increasing a sense of security and peace of mind. Accordingly to Kathryn, most people with epilepsy and other chronic conditions will tell you it’s always a struggle to balance freedom with safety, independence with responsibility.  Once you get over the shock that you have seizures, you do have to get down to “OK, how am I going to live with them?” So in that sense the software is an answer.

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"The mind that lies fallow but a single day sprouts up follies that are only to be killed by a constant and assiduous culture."
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