Logo: University of Southern California

Call, Text, Exercise

How cell phones can help us monitor our health
By: Katie McKissick
June 13, 2013 —

Our cell phones are capable of far more than calling, texting and playing Angry Birds. They can actually help us monitor our health. In a recent collaboration between the USC Viterbi School of Engineering and the Keck School of Medicine of USC, researchers are testing an interactive system that allows teenagers to manage their physical activity levels. USC Viterbi Professors Murali Annavaram, Urbashi Mitra, and Shri Narayanan are collaborating with Professor Donna Spruijt-Metz from the Keck School, with the help of USC Viterbi professors Gaurav Sukhatme and Gisele Ragusa, to develop this system called KNOWME Networks.

Click the image above to see an infographic
about KNOWME networks.

Here’s how it works: each participant in the study is fitted with a sensor that sits just above the sternum and is secured with a band around the chest. This monitors heart rate. A cell phone when worn on the hip provides data from the built-in accelerometer to track movement. The chest sensor and the cell phone together are calibrated to sense the difference between laying down, sitting, playing video games, walking slowly, walking fast and running.

The cell phone software displays a countdown clock that starts at two hours. If the participant has not been active by the time the countdown reaches zero, he or she receives a text message that says, “Move.” If more time elapses and the sensors don’t register any activity, a researcher who is monitoring the incoming data in real time sends a personal text message with a suggestion or encouragement, such as “Go for a walk down your street,” or, “Walk up and down the steps in your house.” It takes 10 consecutive minutes of activity to restart the two-hour countdown clock.

In a recent study conducted over the course of one weekend, the teenage participants decreased their sedentary time by an average of 200 minutes, compared to a weekend where KNOWME was not used.

What’s next for this technology?

Annavaram plans to start a similar study that will monitor air quality’s effect on lung function. Participants will be outfitted with a clip-on air quality monitor that will send data to their cell phones. As they move to distinct environments throughout the day, such as going from home to work or eating lunch outside, the participants will blow into a provided air expirometer that gives them a three-digit lung function score. They will enter this number into their smart phone, which then connects it to the current air quality in the immediate environment. Over time, trends will emerge that show how air quality is affecting lung function for each unique individual.

Another possible application of biomonitoring software could include a system that senses an elderly patient’s fall and sends and automatic text message to loved ones or medical personnel. Such technology with immediate notifications and personalization has the potential to not just keep us healthier, but also save lives.