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Smart Glasses: A new look for healthcare?

Wearable computer devices like Google Glass are tipped to become the next big technology trend, and have exciting health applications
Smart Glasses

In the coming months, expect to be puzzled by people who are tapping rhythmically at their temples as if they are suffering from a nervous tic.

The reason will not be some mass outbreak of anxiety disorder, but rather the advent of smart glasses - augmented reality headsets such as Google's long-awaited Glass headset, which (if the hype is believed) promises to change the way we interact with technology. 

Users of Google Glass tap on the arms of the device - which looks like a chunky set of eyeglasses that interacts with an iPhone or Android smartphone via Bluetooth - to interact with the unit. You can also talk to it (although that could also lead to concerns about your mental state), and information is displayed on the Google Glass lenses like a heads-up display.

Even if they are used responsibly, there are concerns the devices could be hacked, allowing someone else to take control

Out of the box - for those few thousand beta testers who paid $1,500 for the privilege of being the first to try the technology - Glass can make and receive calls, texts and emails, search the web and keep up with social media, take pictures and video, and navigate via GPS and maps. So far so geeky - but will the technology move beyond consumers into serious healthcare and business applications?

Tech analysts have been tripping over themselves in excitement over the new devices, suggesting that the market for smart glasses, along with other wearable computers, will reach $800m this year, rise to $1.5bn next year and then leap to $6bn or more just two years later. It remains to be seen however who will be queuing up to buy the units and who will be developing apps for them.

Beyond Google
The first generation of smart glasses includes not only Glass but also products such as Recon Instruments' already available (and Intel-backed) Recon Jet, which retails for $599, as well as development prototypes from Meta (SpaceGlasses) and Vuzix (M100).

Healthcare applications have featured highly on the list of potential applications for the technology. Earlier this year Dr Christopher Kaeding, a surgeon at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, used Glass to stream video of a knee operation to remote colleagues and medical students to demonstrate how it can be used as a training tool (see video below or on YouTube).

“Once we got into the surgery, I often forgot the device was there,” said Kaeding. “It just seemed very intuitive and fit seamlessly.”

Streaming video is a simple application for the technology, but it is easy to see how Glass could become a conduit for two-way communication, allowing a doctor to consult colleagues mid-procedure to share information and seek advice. The heads-up display could also be used to call up other pertinent information, such as patient records, drug information and test results, without interruption.

An app in development for the device called aRRTGlass assists rapid response teams at hospitals with the ability to live-stream video, along with vital signs, to a doctor or specialist. John Rodley, the chief executive of the app's developer Farlo, says the company is planning to pilot the system this year. 

Another app idea - actually pitched at the Meta headset - is aimed at first responder medical personnel on the battlefield and would involve the use of marker points placed at key locations on a patient's body that could assist with “offsite emergency surgery, tourniquet placement, pressure points, injury data collection, pulse, as well as post-op care”, along with directions and a map for evacuation.

Despite the hype though there have been a relatively limited number of projects out there to try to show the potential of the technology. One of the key barriers has been delays in the launch of the Glass Developer Kit (GDK) by Google, which should allow developers to write more complex apps that can run on the Glass devices.

Google Glass and patient wellbeing
The GDK looks likely to emerge within the next few weeks, but in the meantime developers have been proffering dozens of other possible applications that could have a huge impact on healthcare and patient wellbeing.

For example, a company called Dapper Vision is working on a system that - it is hoped - will use smart glasses to allow visually impaired people to identify objects. Other teams are working on systems that could help patents with degenerative disorders such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) communicate and control other digital devices using tiny eye movements. There is also talk of dentists being able to use smart glasses to identify tiny cavities they might miss during routine cleaning.

Early health applications have seen Google Glass used to live-stream operations to remote colleagues and medical students

On an arguably more mundane level, one app developer (Augmedix) is talking about using the technology to “re-humanise” the doctor-patient relationship. Details of the project are sketchy, but it is not hard to envisage how glasses could be used to spend more quality time with patients by having their comments and patients conversations automatically recorded and transcribed.

All this provides only a tiny insight into the way healthcare and industry may choose to use smart glasses, and we can expect the creativity of apps for Google Glass to explode once developers get their hands on the GDK. Venture funding for start-ups is also becoming available with the set-up of initiatives such as Glassomics, an incubator set up in the summer by Palomar Health and Qualcomm Life.

Despite the promise, there are some concerns about the potential for problems with the use of smart glasses in a medical setting. Healthcare practitioners may find it fantastically useful to take pictures or video of a patient, but that raises issues about patient consent and, perhaps more importantly, the risk that it may occur surreptitiously.

Even if it is used responsibly by physicians, some are concerned about the units' potential to be hacked, allowing another user to take control of the device. Reports have already emerged that Glass headsets are hackable, and of course Google has had its share of controversy about data disclosure and privacy issues, such as the collection of private WiFi data by its Streetview camera cars. Regulators will want to be involved in monitoring how these applications are used in practice to avoid risks to patients, but will be unable to move as quickly as the app developers.

Critics have also suggested smart glasses are yet another technological distraction that could encourage doctors to 'multitask' when their attention should be firmly focused on the patient. 

There is already a heated debate brewing about the potential for the public to place themselves and others at risk by wearing the devices while driving. It is not hard to envisage extending existing legislation that prohibits the use of other digital devices while at the wheel, at least while the technology is visibly being worn. With developers also looking at ever more discreet units and even contact lenses based on the same principles, however, illicit use could become much harder to police. 

It is hard to predict whether the devices will become as ubiquitous and indispensable as tablets, which have penetrated just about every business process in pharma and are increasingly used in healthcare, or will remain a niche product. 

At first glance however it seems entirely plausible that smart glasses will eventually become an integral part of the way people carry out their digital lives and share information.

Article by
Phil Taylor

freelance journalist specialising in the pharmaceutical industry

4th December 2013

From: Healthcare

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