Common Webcams Could Be Used to Continuously Monitor Your Vital Signs

Mirror Mirror on the Wall

A new technology coming out of the Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology program uses low-res cameras like those used in Web cams to measure vital signs, opening the door to around-the-clock monitoring of a person's most fundamental health indicators.

That first early-morning look in the mirror may soon tell you a lot more about your state of being beyond the simple fact that you look like you could use another hour of sleep. A grad student in the Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology program has figured out how to use low-cost, low-resolution off-the-shelf camera technology to measure a person's heart rate through imaging alone. The technology, which could soon also be measuring respiration rates and blood-oxygen levels as well as blood pressure, could make basic medical monitoring a continuous process throughout the day.

The system requires nothing but a low-resolution video camera like the one built into most laptop computers. Software identifies a subject's face in the image and uses variations in brightness resulting from the flow of blood through blood vessels in the face to measure pulse rate. Tested against a physical sensor, the system was found to be accurate to within about three beats per minute. Ming-Zher Poh, the grad student behind the system, is now working on methods to extract other vital data via video image.

The ability to test for vital signs through a Web cam opens the door to all kinds of applications, most obviously in telemedicine. Rather than leaving the house when you're feeling under the weather, you could simply sit down with a nurse via video chat and he or she could take your vitals and determine the best course of action. The non-invasive nature of the tech also makes it ideal for situations where a patient really shouldn't be touched more than is absolutely necessary, like to monitor the vitals of a prematurely born infant or a burn victim.

But the more interesting aspect of the technology is it's ability to be ever-present in our lives. Poh has already created a mirror with a camera embedded into it that displays a person's pulse on the glass itself. Such a mirror could take a vital snapshot of a person each morning when he or she rises and again in the evening, creating a health profile rich in data that we usually only get when we go into the doctor's office. Those who need more careful monitoring could use their computers or phones to monitor their vitals continuously throughout the day.

All that data could be continuously piped to health care providers in real time, allowing our doctors to get a far more complete picture of how our bodies are doing on a day-to-day basis. That could lead to better preventative care, fewer trips to the doctor, and reduced man hours spent sitting in waiting rooms. For health care systems the world over that are flat-lining because of uncontrolled rising costs, that's a favorable prognosis.