In these conventions and exhibitions, ubiquitous technology is convenient, and useful, and forever just out of reach in the limbo of the future. The robots, RFID chips, and talking refrigerators are always still in development and just around the corner. But Kyeongwon U-Globe CEO Cha Joo-hak met with the Korea IT Times to assure us that ubiquitous technology is here, it is now, and it's not quite what they say at the conventions. As Mr. Cha put it: "RFID is just one small part of ubiquitous technology."
What Cha showed the Korea IT Times was quite impressive. It was a wearable, mobile electrocardiogram (ECG) monitor that transmitted its readings through a cellular phone to a monitor that could be seen by a doctor anytime, no matter where the patient was. In a live demonstration, the CEO showed us that just by hooking up a few leads to a pocket-sized piece of hardware, one could see his or her own heartbeat and electrocardiograph on a monitor on their own cellular phone. The information collected by the small monitoring program on the cellular phone was also transmitted to a laptop via a central healthcare server for the demonstration, which represented the monitoring station that a doctor could use to keep tabs on his mobile patients. The doctor had control over the remote monitoring program on the cellular phone, so he was able to stop or restart the program if necessary. And, as a nice touch, there was also the option to start a video phone conversation between the mobile phone and the monitoring station. Finally, the monitoring program was able to run on any mobile phone that used Windows CE or Windows Mobile.
When asked about how much data was being transmitted, CEO Cha gave a figure that was larger than a text message but smaller than a voice conversation, which raises concerns about the expense of sending so much data continuously over a cellular phone. However, the CEO noted that his company was in talks with SK Telecom to negotiate an affordable fee, about 5,000 won (US$3.59) per month, to transmit the data.
The system is not sitting idly in the company's R&D department, either. Kyeongwon U-Globe is in close cooperation with a medical center in the area to begin a trial of their technology within a short time, although Mr. Cha was reluctant to give details away this time. But he said he would be sure to inform the Korea IT Times when the pilot program was officially ready to launch.
This main technology is the most developed, but the company has a number of other mobile health monitor technologies in development as well. The first is an add-on to the ECG system to monitor blood pressure. It uses photoplethysmography to detect a pulse using two LEDs and a photodetector when clipped or bandaged to the finger, a very unobtrusive way when compared to a traditional blood-pressure cuff. It compares the ECG and the pulse detector to determine blood speed, and therefore continuous blood pressure. A further evolution of the mobile monitoring system is a non-contact heartbeat sensor that measures body functions without coming into direct contact with the skin. It comes in two parts, a capacitive electrode for the chest which can be worn like a necklace and an inductive electrode for the wrist which can be worn like a watch. These two pieces of ubiquitous health monitoring jewelry are much more comfortable for a patient to wear, as patients are probably already comfortable with wearing watches and necklaces. The device focuses on measuring heart rate variability for warnings about possible disease or indicators of current disease.
But the company is not content with that. Kyeongwon U-Globe is also creating more esoteric sensors, such as a photoplethysmograph which uses conducting polymer actuators. A photoplethysmograph, briefly mentioned earlier in this article, is a way to measure a body's pulse by shining a light through the skin. Even though the strength of the blood moving through the smallest capillaries near the skin is not noticeable as a pulse with the naked eye, the pulse still expands the capillaries a small amount. This changes the amount of light that passes through the skin. A small photodetector can monitor changes in light transmitted by two equally small LEDs, and from there determine pulse rate. And for Kyeongwon U-Globe, small means ring-sized. They have plans for a ring-sized photoplethysmograph that can be worn unobtrusively on the finger.
There are a few other technologies and programs that CEO Cha spoke about. The first is a non-adhesive, reusable electrode for ECG monitoring. The existing system that the CEO demonstrated required adhesive electrodes to be placed in several areas on the chest in order to pick up an ECG reading, which is the traditional way. However, the company is designing a pre-placed set of non-adhesive electrodes that can be placed on a shirt which can be worn without having to replace the adhesives, which can wear out quickly and require replacement. Also, the company is developing yet another method to detect blood pressure and pulse non-invasively using piezoelectric sensors taped to the arm. And, the company is bringing all of these sensor monitoring ideas to their participation in a multi-institute War Fighter Physiological Status Monitoring research program focused on gathering, archiving, and interpreting physiological data from war fighters in the field. They are working to be able to monitor things like hydration status, thermal status, cognitive status, and determine a physiological strain index. Tomorrow's soldiers may be safer than ever before.
Cha Joo-hak emphasized that all of these devices and all of the company's work is being done with current technology and existing electronic devices. He said that ubiquitous technology is not really a technology to be developed, but a convergence of existing technological solutions to achieve the ubiquitous ideas of having devices that are always around, unobtrusive, and helpful. His company, Kyeongwon U-Globe, is doing just that right now, today, and can truly be called pioneers in their field.