University of Guelph research puts a health lab right in your pocket

Your smartphone can share photos with your friends, hail you a taxi, and reserve a table at your favourite restaurant. And one day, thanks to a partnership between the University of Guelph and Google, it could also save your life.

The top drawer of engineering professor Petros Spachos’ filing cabinet is filled to the brim with smartphones, some of the newest and most advanced technology on the market. In Spachos’ lab, students are exploring how to turn these smartphones into devices that can provide life-saving data to medical professionals.

A gift from Google has provided Spachos’ and his lab with 30 smartphones to create the biggest smartphone test bed in Canada – the Gryphone Lab. The donation is the first of its kind by Google to a Canadian university.

The average smartphone contains dozens of different sensors (barometers, gyroscopes, accelerometers, thermometers, etc.) to power standard apps and those the user downloads. With the right coding, these sensors can be programmed to collect information about the user’s physical state.

The camera’s lens can record light bouncing off skin to estimate heart rate.

The microphone can record the sound of a person snoring to evaluate sleep apnea.

Students in Spachos’ graduate course on smartphone programming are working to turn the devices into ehealth monitors.

“We’re not just working with computer engineers,” says Spachos. “We’re collaborating with students and researchers across disciplines who understand the human mind and body, too.”

That kind of interdisciplinary cooperation is evident in one student’s project that uses smartphone sensors to measure light, humidity and oxygen in a room. Those measurements are correlated with information from other smartphone sensors that report on the user’s performance in certain tasks. The student wants to know how a healthy physical environment – one with lots of light and oxygen – relates to performance and mood, particularly depression. It’s a question that spans multiple fields of study.

“Smartphones can collect information on all kinds of vital signs. People often don’t think about the many different sensors that make their phones work,” says Spachos.

Research from Spachos’ lab could eventually allow someone experiencing a medical emergency to contact a pharmacy, transmit biometric data from a smartphone, and have a drone deliver life-saving medication faster than an ambulance could arrive.

The pocket-sized technology contained in a smartphone is constantly evolving. Spachos and his students are at the forefront of using that technology to improve lives.