June 24, 2013

New heart app highlights ties between Wichita State, academic inventors

Jeremy Patterson and Jibo He are inventors creating an app they call the Heart R8.

Jeremy Patterson and Jibo He are inventors creating an app they call the Heart R8.

As in “heart rate.”

It can read heart pulses in peoples’ faces. It can tell what your heart rate is even with no electrodes hooked to your chest.

Patterson, who has a doctorate in physical exercise, says the Heart R8 could be a nifty invention for the fitness industry.

And because the Heart R8 can tell when your pulse is racing, it might eventually point the way to other inventions for other industries.

Such as those that might want to watch people’s faces at airports or at the Boston Marathon. Watch the faces, find the person with the racing heart. Is he up to no good?

The Heart R8 can’t tell that. It can’t read people’s minds.

Not yet.

• • • 

Imagine a hospital where someone could glance at a screen and tell what a patient’s heart rate is and whether that person is descending into heart distress.

No electrodes hooked to the chest or into a big machine – just a webcam and an app. And because your heart doctor has the app, she could pull her smartphone out of her pocket and click on it to see what your heart rate is, even if she’s miles away.

Or imagine a world where:

• You could read every face of every semi driver anywhere. You can see which drivers are tired and need to pull over to rest.
• You’re in charge of a building full of air traffic controllers watching over the safety of hundreds of planes. You can see every controller’s face. You can tell which controllers need a break.
• You’re in charge of security at the Boston Marathon. You are watching live webcams of faces in a crowd.
• Or you’re a commercial airplane pilot, and you’ve got a webcam that reads the face of every passenger in your plane.

And at the marathon, or on the plane, you see one face in which someone’s heart rate is way faster than the rates of the people beside him. Is the guy just having a bad day? Did his girlfriend just dump him? Or is he a terrorist, about to pull a trigger?

The Heart R8 can’t read minds … but it might eventually give clues about which people to watch more closely.

Could the National Security Agency start using cameras to scan faces at airports and prevent hijackings?

Patterson, when asked that, broke into a grin. He said he and Jibo He have filed for patents on what they’re making at Wichita State University.

“So if the NSA really wanted to do that, they’d probably have to come talk to us now,” he said.

• • • 

On a recent morning at the lab in the Heskett Center at Wichita State University, Patterson and He put a skinny, bearded grad student named Ryan Waterson on a treadmill and told him to work up a sweat, with the webcam watching his face. Patterson and He watched his face on a computer monitor hooked up to the webcam.

On the screen, the app zeroed in on Waterson’s face. Numbers appeared on the screen. Patterson, whose doctorate is in clinical exercise physiology, nodded in satisfaction.

The app in the webcam could read changes in the color of Waterson’s face, changes so small that only the app can see them.

“Every time his heart pulses, the blood is traveling and is changing the colors of his face,” Patterson said, looking at the screen. And from that, the app can tell precisely what the person’s heart rate is.

That might sound routine. Heart monitors from hospitals to outer space have read heartbeats for decades. At gyms, you can run on a treadmill and monitor your heart rate by putting your hand on a monitor built into the machine.

But Waterson wasn’t holding one of those, and he had no electrodes taped to his chest. And yet Patterson and He could tell precisely how fast Waterson’s heart was beating

Patterson, a trim, athletic-looking guy, is director of WSU’s Human Performance Laboratory in the Heskett Center, so he knows a bit about workout equipment.

“The design of most treadmills has barely changed since the 1970s,” he said.

The Heart R8 app could change everything about it, he said. It could make workouts more efficient, for one thing.

All they are working on right now, Patterson said, is a webcam that could be a success in the exercise business. There could be a lot of money there.

All that NSA stuff might come later, he said.

• • • 

John Tomblin is a fan of Patterson’s lab. He says that perhaps the best invention Patterson’s lab came up with in the past year is not a webcam app but a new way to do business at a university.

Tomblin has been filling in for several months as WSU’s acting vice president for research and technology transfer. He said that what Patterson did in recent months, with approval from Tomblin and WSU president John Bardo, is create a new business, with partners including He, another faculty member, a student – and WSU.

Tomblin’s regular job is to run the National Institute for Aviation Research, one of the world’s premiere aerospace testing institutes. He’s seen many inventions. He’s excited about the Heart R8 app but is more intrigued about the partnership.

If the process gets widely replicated, it could lead to all sorts of inventions at WSU – resulting in jobs for the community and a money stream for the university.

None of it would have been possible, Tomblin said, until Bardo showed up last summer and began telling faculty researchers to invent things and get them quickly into the marketplace.

In the three years before Bardo took over in 2012, Tomblin said, faculty at WSU had filed paperwork on 14 “invention disclosures,” possible inventions at WSU. But in the past eight months, Tomblin said, WSU has filed 17 disclosures, “more in the last eight months than we had in the previous three years.”

Patterson was blunt about what forming a business partnership means: It means that university researchers who come up with good ideas can get around the snail’s pace of the academic inventions process.

“What usually happens at a university is that you have an idea, so you apply for a grant,” Patterson said. “Then you wait a year. Then finally they get back to you to say that if you do certain things, they might give you the grant. Then you wait some more.”

It can go on like that for years, he said.

The trade-off with becoming a partner in a business is that you’re risking your own time and money. But you get around the slowness of the system, and if it works, you get a portion of the proceeds. There could be a lot of proceeds for the Heart R8, Patterson said.

Will that happen?

The Heart R8 can’t read minds. Or see into the future.

Not yet.

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