Alphabet, the parent company of Google, is ramping up efforts to launch an affordable, wearable health tracker. That is according to the MIT Technology Review, which reports the holding company’s Verily Life Sciences division has been developing a smartwatch packed to the brim with biometric sensors.
It is far beyond the research phase. The latest pre-production model, which MIT Technology Review described as an “ordinary-looking, brass-colored” analog watch, is the the product of “more than hundreds” of prototypes, Verily Chief Technical Officer Brian Otis told the publication. It packs the sort of sensors commonplace across wearables, chiefly an accelerometer and gyrosope that measures movement. And it sports a display that would not be out of place on, say, a Pebble smartwatch: its circular in shape and made of e-ink, a low-power technology that uses less energy than backlit LCD displays.
But the Verily wearable’s fitness-tracking features are reportedly far more exhaustive than, say, those of the Apple Watch, Fitbit Flex 2, or Jawbone Up. A conductive outer ring can record an electrocardiogram. And on the watch’s underside are four optical sensors reportedly capable of “photoplethysmogram,” a method of deriving heart rate by measuring the rate of green light absorption in the blood. Four raised metal pads that sit against the wrist while the watch is worn may have “several uses,” speculated MIT Technology Review, including “as contacts to charge the watch,” to “provide a second electrode to complete ECG measurements,” or to measure stress by “galvanic skin response” — i.e. how much you sweat.
It is a ground-up effort. Otis told MIT Technology Review the company designed almost every facet of the watch including, but not limited to, the chips that power them. “We’re constantly iterating on these things,” Otis said.
A Verily spokesperson told MIT Technology Review that the the watch was still under development.
Efforts may have gotten underway quite early. Bloomberg reported that Verily, a graduate of Google’s storied ‘X’ — a facility responsible for self-driving cars, internet-disseminating balloons, and other “moonshot” projects — began iterating on the concept of a health-tracking wearable in early 2015. Verily recently recruited David He, former architect at Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Quanttus, who led efforts at the health startup to build a blood-pressure watch.
The health tracker is not bound for store shelves anytime soon, unfortunately. Otis told MIT Technology Review the wearable will eventually aid in Verily’s Baseline Study, a long-term epidemiological study that aims to discover big-data trends — what Google calls “biomarkers” — in health. The project’s ambitions are far-reaching: to discern the earliest, as-yet undetectable signs of life-threatening diseases such as cancer, enabling medical researchers to focus on preventative medicine. It might involve as many as 10,000 to 20,000 volunteers in the next few months, Verily scientific adviser Dennis Ausiello told MIT Technology Review.
The prototypical health tracker is not the first hardware to emerge from Alphabet’s Life Sciences division. In June 2015, it took the wraps off a wearable capable of measuring pulse, rhythm, and skin temperature in addition to surrounding conditions such as light exposure and noise levels. Google is working with institutions and pharmaceutical companies to test the wearable and hopes to obtain regulatory approval in the U.S. and Europe before pursuing mass manufacturing.
Earlier this year, Google partnered with Swiss healthcare firm Novaris to develop a glucose-detecting smart contact lenses for diabetics. And a recent patent filed by the company describes a so-called “smart lens” that would replace the natural lens in a patient’s eye — presumably for the purpose of correcting vision.
Google’s broader health initiatives involve the use of artificial intelligence. DeepMind, the London-based AI outfit that Google acquired for around $500 million in 2014, partnered with the U.K.’s National Health Service to launch DeepMind Health, a program designed to aid health workers in identifying patients at risk of dangerous complications. More recently, in July, DeepMind announced a long-term project that will see the company’s machine-learning algorithms parse “millions” of eye scans to tease out the early warning signs of eye diseases.
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