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This “Fitbit for the face” Can Monitor Workers’ Vital Signs Via Their Masks

A new mask-mounted device has just come on the market. It is designed to monitor the vital signs of the users and detects leaks in the mask’s seal. This is good news for healthcare professionals who constantly must wear masks for 12 or more hours.

It is currently being developed at Illinois’ Northwestern University. The prototype gadget is being called FaceBit. It is described as a Fitbit for the face.

It’s about the size of a US quarter-dollar coin and attaches to the inside of any type of mask – N95, cloth, or surgical – through a small magnet. It works through a battery which is augmented by onboard systems which harvest energy from motion, light, plus the heat and force of the wearer’s breaths.

Consequently, one battery can last for more than 11 days between charges. It is expected that, with more developments, a battery will not be needed.  

FaceBit can detect the force of individual breaths. Hence, it can calculate the wearer’s rate of respiration. Additionally, by detecting the tiny head movements which accompany each heartbeat – and by telling the difference between them and other body movements – it can determine the user’s heart rate. And finally, if it detects a sudden drop in how resistant the mask is to releasing exhaled air, it knows that the seal between the mask and the wearer’s skin may be compromised.

The data is transmitted through Bluetooth to an accompanying smartphone app, which warns the user if they’re becoming too stressed, too fatigued, or if their mask needs to be readjusted or replaced.

Although the FaceBit has already been tested in a real-world healthcare environment, the technology still needs to be validated via clinical trials. It has been released as an open-source system so that other groups can help in its development.

“FaceBit provides the first step toward practical on-face sensing and inference, and provides a sustainable, convenient, comfortable option for general health monitoring for COVID-19 frontline workers and beyond,” said the lead scientist, Asst. Prof. Josiah Hester. “I’m really excited to hand this off to the research community to see what they can do with it.”

A paper on the study was recently published in the journal Proceedings of the ACM on Interactive, Mobile, Wearable and Ubiquitous Technologies.