Thursday, December 15, 2011

Combining GPS, Cameras and More to Chart Health

    Rebecca Kutzer-Rice

  • A new device from the University of Pittsburgh tracks all aspects of a user's health—from exercise to TV-watching time to meals consumed at restaurants. The tool might just change how people go about losing weight.Plenty of weight-loss devices exist, from calorie-tracking iPhone applications to pedometers, but a new tool from the University of Pittsburgh is an all-in-one tech tool that monitors every aspect of health. Called eButton, the device could help minimize obesity and other serious problems related to food and activity.
    Although it contains several different sensors, eButton is smaller than a cell phone. (Source: University of Pittsburgh)
    Although it’s smaller than your smartphone, eButton contains many of the same technologies, including a tiny camera, an accelerometer, a GPS and other sensors that track data about daily activities. The tool, which is worn on the chest like a pin, eliminates the need for self-reporting of events like meals and exercise.
    “eButton was created to combat obesity, which has become a widespread problem in the United States,” Mingui Sun, who led the project, said in a statement. Sun is a Pitt professor of neurosurgery and electrical and computer engineering. “This disease affects 60 percent of people and costs our country upwards of $225 billion in direct and indirect costs.”
    The high-tech sensors of eButton can also chart time spent sitting and time spent outdoors. Its GPS lets users track where they buy food and in which restaurants they dine. It can even detect what menu items are ordered.
    The device uses a camera to chart quantities of food eaten. (Source: University of Pittsburgh)
    The tool does raise some privacy concerns—its camera, for example, takes footage of the people whom wearers see throughout the day—but all the data is securely coded. Results cannot be seen until a user’s computer has automatically blocked out human faces.
    “This multidimensional approach looks at the overall health of eButton wearers, which is more important than just food and exercise alone,” said Sun. “We have to take into account how people live, not only what they eat or how they exercise at the gym.”
    According to the CDC, more than 30 percent of the adult population of the U.S. is obese. Factors like overeating and sedentary lifestyles are major contributors to the epidemic. While studies have shown that tracking various activities can help people lose weight, accurate data is hard to estimate. Tools like eButton could help lower obesity rates around the world.
    Still in its testing phases, eButton is not yet commercially available. The research behind the prototype was developed in part by a four-year grant from the NIH Genes, Environment and Health Initiative.
     

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