When Matteo Lai set out to create a wearable biometric data tracker, he didn’t know he’d end up with a device that not only keeps track of your fitness level and sleep quality, but one that can warn you of an impending seizure as well. Lai’s device, called The Embrace, was created in a collaboration between Boston Children’s Hospital and the MIT Media Lab to collect medical-quality data using sensors that measure the skin’s electrodermal activity (EDA), as well as the typical metric data associated with exercise and sleep.
EDA is a measure of the amount of electricity conducted via the skin; the conductance increases when the wearer’s sweat production increases, which is what happens when someone gets nervous, excited. or stressed. The measure of skin conductance was initially intended to help people keep tabs on their stress levels. However, an unforeseen benefit was found by chance.
An MIT researcher, Rosalind Picard, was working with a device that she created to measure EDA in an attempt to quantify emotional responses, particularly for people who are nonverbal. One of her students took two of the devices home over a Christmas break. His brother, who has Autism and is nonverbal, wore one on each wrist. Picard’s remote monitoring of the device revealed a huge spike in the EDA on the right side only of the brother’s body, which Picard mistakenly attributed to an error in the sensors.
When she later spoke with her student, she learned that his brother had experienced a grand mal seizure about 20 minutes after the huge spike in conductance was recorded. More research showed that EDA could also reliably reflect, in an inverse relationship, the flattening of brain waves that occurs after a seizure.
Armed with her findings, she teamed up with Lai to create The Embrace. Though Lai’s company already had a great reputation for quality, wearable, biometric devices, there was a challenge in getting people to comply with wearing them because of their bulk. The Embrace has a sleeker, lighter design that works just as effectively as the more cumbersome earlier devices.
Though some people will likely use The Embrace solely for fitness tracking, it can offer it’s wearers so much more.