MIT discovers yet another use for a simple webcam: measuring your pulse rate. It’s desktop video-chatting and heart physician in one tiny unit.
The work is the result of studies by graduate student Ming-Zher Poh, and it’s all about a clever algorithm that looks at a webcam feed of your face and measures subtle brightness changes in your skin over time. It’s possible, Poh found, to calculate the pulse rate of a person on camera by using a public-domain face-tracking solution and then examining the different color channels of a face in a video feed. The trickiest part wasn’t even the pulse detection, but accounting for all the lighting and color effects as the subject’s face naturally moved in the ambient lighting conditions. Overcoming this involved adapting algorithms from those in voice recognition systems that isolate a particular voice from a room of other voices.
Ming-Zher’s results were reliable enough that they produce pulse rates that were within three beats per minute of the results reported by an FDA-approved pulse measuring device. And since the research is ongoing, we can expect this variation to be tightened up in future versions of the system. In fact, we can probably expect a lot more than that: The science suggests it should be possible to also track respiration rates and your blood-oxygen levels. One day even a blood pressure calculation may be possible.
What’s the use of this tech? Firstly the team behind it thinks it’s so cheap and reliable it’s the sort of thing that could easily be adapted into interactive furniture, like a bathroom mirror–the idea being that you’d get a quick’n’dirty heart health check-up as you brushed your teeth in the morning. Apart from the (potentially) heart-stopping horror that you may feel if enough of the display showed up in flashing red alerts, directing you to your GP rather than the office that morning, it sounds like a sensible idea.
But with future adaptations, companies could use it to monitor the stress levels of their employees in real time (especially interesting since the prototype system can already detect three people’s pulses simultaneously–meaning there may be law-and-order uses for this in crowd monitoring) and people with concerns about their heart health may benefit from an analytical feed displayed on their smartphone, as its webcam may also work with the tech.
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