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Smart speakers may soon be able to keep tabs on your infant’s breathing

Smart speakers like Amazon Echo or Google Home may be the new parenting assistant you’re looking for. Researchers at the University of Washington have developed a new smart speaker skill, called BreathJunior, with a focus on taking care of baby like a hyper-advanced baby monitor. The skill uses white noise to monitor your baby’s movement and breathing. The white noise can also be used to soothe a fussy baby.

BreathJunior being used on a prototype smart speaker. University of Washington

“One of the biggest challenges new parents face is making sure their babies get enough sleep. They also want to monitor their children while they’re sleeping. With this in mind, we sought to develop a system that combines soothing white noise with the ability to unobtrusively measure an infant’s motion and breathing,” co-author Jacob Sunshine, an assistant professor of anesthesiology and pain medicine at the UW School of Medicine, said in a statement.

The skill was created to be used on a test smart speaker that has the same type of hardware that is found in an Amazon Echo. To detect breathing and movement, the speaker using the skill project’s white noise out into the area where the baby is laying. Then, it records how the sound is projected back.

“We start out by transmitting a random white noise signal. But we are generating this random signal, so we know exactly what the randomness is,” Anran Wang, the author on the study and a doctoral student in the Allen School, said in a statement. “That signal goes out and reflects off the baby. Then the smart speaker’s microphones get a random signal back. Because we know the original signal, we can cancel out any randomness from that and then we’re left with only information about the motion from the baby.”

From early tests, it looks like the skill works. BreathJunior was tested on five babies in a neonatal intensive care unit. The respiratory rate data collected by the speaker closely matched the data collected by standard hospital vital sign monitors.

University of Washington researchers will present their findings on October 22 at the MobiCom 2019 conference and they plan to commercialize their idea through Sound Life Sciences. The team stresses, though, that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends avoiding monitors that markets themselves as a way to reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome, and that the BreathJunior team does not make that claim.

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