I've been thinking a lot about my smartphone's capabilities lately. It wasn't that long ago that your phone was just a phone. You could place or receive calls on it and that was pretty much it. Today's smart phones are as much mini-computer as anything we've seen in our lifetime. Not only do they have as much computing power as the desktops of merely a decade ago, they have displays that quite impressive even if they do require me break out my reading glasses. They still lack a good and effective method of inputting text, but we'll leave the discussion of that to another time.
Where my smartphone really shines is connectivity. These days if I find myself at a the airport and want to do some email or a read some news on my laptop, I'm more likely to crank up my iPhone's hotspot feature as struggle with whatever wifi service the airport has to offer. Often I get better speed via phone's 4G connection than the overcrowded public wifi offering anyway. To perform this little feat, my phone is using it's cellular data modem and at the same time it's wifi radio, two different wireless systems. Now add to this the fact that most modern smartphones have bluetooth wireless functionality as well and you have a veritable powerhouse of wireless options. An let's not forget the lowly SMS features of your phone. For certain situations, SMS can be one of the most reliable way to get data on and off your smartphone, especially in remote locations.
Most people only use their bluetooth to connect a headset or may be occasionally a keyboard in order to compose a lengthy email reply, but there is a quiet revolution occurring in the bluetooth world. Most modern smartphones like the iPhone4S or newer and the Galaxy II S or newer have an extended version of bluetooth called bluetooth LE. The LE stands for Low Energy and it allows a new class of device to be attached without the clumsy pairing that bluetooth is know for. These devices use far less energy and as a result can run for as long as a month on a coin sized battery. What makes this exciting, it that I can now connect these simple devices to the Internet and any number of powerful back-end systems via my smartphone. Just like using my smartphone as a wifi hotspot, I can use my smartphone to funnel data from these devices directly to a back-end system for analysis or anything else I want. In the resent months, I've been using a BluetoothLE(BTLE) heart rate monitor to collect my heart rate for many weeks. The data is sent to my iPhone where I store it in a local database before sending it to the back-end system. This method prevents the loss of data should(more likely when) my phone goes out of network connectivity. A lot of mobile app developers don't plan for disconnected or temporarily disconnected situations in their application, but I guess they never step into an elevator. In the case of something medically related, the option of dropping data is just not an option even if it's delivery is delayed.
Smartphones are so much a part of our lives, we can't imagine being far from them. I've often made a return trip to my desk to fetch my phone because I honestly feel weird when it's not in my pocket and who knows, I might have missed an important communication. Socially there has been a huge acceptance of everyone having their phones at hand and we often find ourselves excusing someone taking a call in the middle of our conversation with them when in the past that would have been the ultimate rudeness. Because they are with us at all time, it makes them a natural conduit for data that now can be collect about us cheaply, easily and continuously. I mentioned the heart rate monitor, but there are also pedometers, blood pressure cuffs, blood glucose monitors, bathroom scales, thermometers and activity trackers. Add to this GPS location tracking and we start to have a pretty compelling case for non-routine remote health monitoring situations. Keep in mind that these sorts of devices are considered excise aids and don't rise to the level of approved medical devices. However, I think the whole collection of information about you and your activity can be collected and analysed and may one day be pretty affective at suggesting more healthy courses of action. Did you exercise enough this week? Is your new diet proving effective? Is there a wild swing in my blood sugar that my doctor should know about? And even longer term trends that don't rise to the level of medical importance, but could help us monitor our general well being.
All of this would be possible without the smartphone being the center of it all, but it would be more expensive, more complicated, and more difficult to keep up with than you'd want. Monitoring activity without having to remember to monitor is tends to be a lot more acceptable to users and easier to manage. I look forward to the solutions the future brings with the availability of this technology.