Scientists have unveiled a new system that can turn an everyday smart speaker like the hugely popular Amazon Echo or Google Nest into a heartbeat monitor that works without touching you. To detect a heartbeat from around the room, the software sends inaudible sounds from the speaker to someone sitting nearby.
When the sound waves hit the person and bounce back, they are picked up by the sophisticated microphone array built into voice-controlled devices such as the Amazon Echo or Google Nest. Once captured, complex algorithms developed by the scientists analyze the data and calculate the heart rate of the person in the room.
The new technique was discovered by researchers at the University of Washington, who tested the system on both healthy people and hospitalized heart patients. In the tests, the scientists said the smart speaker could capture heartbeats almost as accurately as a medical grade electrocardiogram (EKG) monitor. And unlike the latter, there is no need to touch the patient.
According to the University of Washington team, this is the first time both regular and irregular heartbeats have been monitored without physical contact. The system developed by the researchers is based on two new algorithms. The first analyzes the sound waves using the smart speaker microphones to determine the heartbeat, while the second segments the signal to determine the length of time between two heartbeats.
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Shyam Gollakota, co-author of the study, said the analysis of the sound waves relies on the same processes that allow voice assistant Alexa to pick out your voice in a noisy room.
Smart speakers like Amazon Echo and Google Nest have far-field microphones that can be used to activate the voice that issues the voice command – regardless of whether music is playing in the background, the TV is booming in the corner of the room, street noise, podcasts or a different number of noisy distractions in the home.
Gollakota said, “When I say ‘Hey Alexa,’ the microphones work together to find me in the room and listen to what I say next. That’s exactly what happens here, but with the heartbeat. “
According to the team behind the system, the algorithms are currently set up to take samples from someone who is concerned about their heart rhythm. However, they say it could be adjusted in the future to monitor signs of sleep apnea or heart emergencies. The ability to alert family members when the smart speaker in the room detects signs of a heart emergency could be a real lifesaver.
Apple Watch, Samsung Galaxy Watch, and a number of other smartwatches are already set up to warn the wearer when their heartbeat hits or falls below a safe limit. This could be an early warning that something may have gone wrong. The ability to use smart speakers in our kitchens, living rooms, bedrooms, and offices to do the same could be a huge advancement.
University of Washington researchers said the system would be available in case Amazon or Google want to integrate the system directly into their smart speakers.