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Making wearing a face mask smarter: Data sensors to measure vital signs

Meet FaceBit, the new face mask with wearable technology incorporated.

Man wearing a face mask. Image by Tim Sandle.
Man wearing a face mask. Image by Tim Sandle.

The most common outward sign of the pandemic has been the face mask. Once only associated with surgical units, the face mask has become and item of everyday wear.

The ubiquity of the face mask relates to the medical evidence that emerged early on into the pandemic that the wearing of masks was a keyway to minimise the spread of the viral infection. Where a person is infected, the mask functions to capture particles within the filter of the mask. A downside of the increase in face mask wearing has been the impact of plastic pollution and issues of mask disposal.

A new innovation, which comes from North-western University in the U.S., has centered on making the face mask more practical in terms of adding an additional area of usefulness. This involves the use of mart technology. This comes in the form of integrating sensors into the mask.

Technologists have researchers have fabricated small sensors that can be attached to various types of face masks. The sensors are capable of monitoring for ‘vital signs’ pertaining to respiration, heart rate, perspiration and other measures. Data can be transmitted wirelessly and then subjected to further analysis.

In terms of functionality, the sensors have been described as “FaceBit,” alluding to a popular wearable device of a more conventional nature. The sensors transmit information to a smartphone app. The app can be programmed to alert the user to health indicators like an increase in high heart rate, leaks in the mask (which would affect the efficacy of the mask), or other physical health parameters of interest. The mask can also signal to the wearer if it has become lose or if it is not properly sealed on someone’s face.

According to lead researcher Josiah Hester: “We wanted to design an intelligent face mask for health care professionals that does not need to be inconveniently plugged in during the middle of a shift. We augmented the battery’s energy with energy harvesting from various sources, which means that you can wear the mask for a week or two without having to charge or replace the battery.”

The sensor has been tested out in healthcare settings, added to masks worn by doctors and nurses. The sensor can function successfully across the period of a typical shift (around 11 hours). As well as containing a battery, the sensor has been designed to generate power from the wearer’s own breathing.

To date the sensors have been assessed as a proof-of-concept study, assessing the running time of the senor, the ability of the sensor to transmit data, and how the sensor captures health related data. However, for the sensors to be used in real-world medical situations then additional study, including clinical trial testing, would be required.

The research appears in the Proceedings of the ACM on Interactive Mobile Wearable and Ubiquitous Technologies. The research is titled “FaceBit: Smart Face Masks Platform.”

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Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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