‘Fitbit for the face’ can turn any face mask into a smart monitoring device

About the size of a quarter, FaceBit clips onto any mask with a small magnet. Credit: Northwestern University

In a new study from Northwestern University, researchers have developed a new smart sensor platform for face masks that they are calling a “Fitbit for the face.”

Dubbed “FaceBit,” the lightweight, quarter-sized sensor uses a tiny magnet to attach to any N95, cloth or surgical face mask.

Not only can it sense the user’s real-time respiration rate, heart rate and mask wear time, it also may be able to replace cumbersome tests by measuring mask fit.

All this information is then wirelessly transmitted to a smartphone app, which contains a dashboard for real-time health monitoring.

The app can immediately alert the user when issues—such as elevated heart rate or a leak in the mask—unexpectedly arise. The physiological data also could be used to predict fatigue, physical health status and emotional state.

Although a tiny battery powers the device, FaceBit is designed to harvest energy from any variety of ambient sources—including the force of the user’s breathing, motion and heat from a user’s breath as well as from the sun.

This extends the sensor’s battery life, lengthening time between charges.

In the study, researchers found FaceBit’s accuracy was similar to clinical-grade devices, and the battery lasted longer than 11 days between charges.

Before designing FaceBit, Hester and his collaborators first interviewed doctors, nurses and medical assistants to better understand their needs for smart face masks.

In a series of surveys, all clinicians indicated that quality of mask fit was most important—especially when working directly with patients with viral infections.

To ensure their N95 masks are properly sealed to their faces, health care workers periodically undergo a 20-minute “fit test.”

During this process, health care workers first put on an N95 respirator followed by a clear hood over their entire head. Another worker then pumps either sweet or bitter aerosol mists into the hood.

The concentration of the aerosol is gradually increased inside the hood until it can be detected by the person wearing the respirator. If the wearer tastes bitter or sweet before a certain number of aerosol pumps, then the mask is not properly sealed.

Although Hester’s FaceBit cannot yet replace this cumbersome process—which is a long-standing challenge in the medical industry—it can ensure the mask retains proper fit between testing events.

If the mask becomes loose throughout the day or if the user bumps the mask during an activity, for example, FaceBit can alert the wearer.

FaceBit also can monitor the person wearing the mask in real time. By gathering various physiological signals—such as heart and respiratory rates—FaceBit can help wearers better understand their own bodies in order to make beneficial health decisions.

All health information, including mask fit and wear time, are displayed on the accompanying smartphone app.

According to the team, every time a person’s heart beats, their head moves an imperceptibly tiny amount. FaceBit can sense that subtle motion—and differentiate it from other motions—in order to calculate heart rate.

If you care about wellness, please read studies about most effective face-mask practices to reduce spread of COVID-19, and when should I use a rapid COVID test.

For more information about health, please see recent studies about drug that could offer much-needed COVID-19 protection, and results showing this supplement could reduce coughing, congestion, and sore throat.

The study is published in the Proceedings of the ACM on Interactive, Mobile, Wearable and Ubiquitous Technologies. One author of the study is Josiah Hester.

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