These Consumer Technologies Could Show Us What’s Next in Medical Devices

Here are two technologies that you may not immediately connect with healthcare applications, but that could make a big splash in the upcoming years in medical devices.

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As the consumer technology industry moves forward it constantly invents, develops, and produces a myriad of amazing technologies. Some of these innovations have important applications in medical devices. These technologies aren’t necessarily vital to effective medical treatment, but they do play a big role in usability and convenience, which are important factors in efficient and effective care. As they become more widely available and cheaper, the opportunities for medical devices to also become better, cheaper, and more readily available also grow.

Here are two technologies that you may not immediately connect with healthcare applications, but that could make a big splash in the upcoming years in medical devices.

Location Hardware Systems

Self-driving cars and flying-drone systems are exploding industries, and are in demand of precision location hardware systems to understand their physical surroundings. Google, Ford, Honda, GM, Toyota, Tesla, Uber, and pretty much all the other major car manufacturers are developing driving automation hardware, as are many drone manufacturers for industrial and recreational uses. Both groups rely on a variety of components, especially LIDAR, GPS, ultrasonics, and video cameras to run their auto-pilot controls. A lot of these technologies have been around for a long time, but the growth of these markets will drive down price and drive up efficacy for everyone. Not only that, but these applications also demand miniaturized and weatherproof components, which are both key ingredients to high reliability products such as medical devices.

Though neither cars nor drones are typically medically oriented, location hardware systems have a home in healthcare applications. In their most obvious use, they support devices like self-driving wheelchairs—a couple of which made the news recently—as well as similar mobility devices such as exoskeletons.

Their less-obvious application is even more interesting. Autopilot hardware systems operate like giant scanners that can process their surroundings quickly and in detail, and can account for a variety of conditions. That means they could be perfectly suited to imaging diagnostics. Current imaging systems such as MRIs require a specific patient orientation, don’t work in certain applications if the patient moves, and are bulky and expensive. LIDAR (Light Distance and Ranging) systems can't scan the inside of the human body, but they are a smaller, cheaper, more nimble method of scanning physical surfaces than MRIs. That means they have applications in diagnostics for illnesses that show externally, or for quickly scanning healthy surfaces periodically for later comparisons.

Even more importantly, these systems can be used in moving, physically spread-out scanning applications. There are already medical devices focused on measuring walking gait, orthopaedic recovery, mobility, sleep tracking, and hand motions (to name a few) that could be better and cheaper with the onset of more competition in building these hardware systems. Cheaper components also mean more coverage and a more thorough data set in applications where the subject can move around a broad area, such as a home or a hospital.

The software systems behind autopilots are a key benefit too: they are designed to use computer vision algorithms to assess their surroundings and alert users about fault conditions (for example in a car, this could be an object on the road, but in medical devices the same technology could sound the alarm if a patient falls over). It’s not a stretch to imagine an affordable combination of sensors that could be setup to automatically scan and monitor patient status or mobility and form preliminary conclusions with the technology we already have today.

And, if you have a fantastic 3-D scanner, how great would it be to use it in tandem with a fantastic 3-D projector?

Holographic Displays

They’re almost here and they’re just as cool as we’ve always hoped. From Tupac to basic shapes, holograms (Greek for “whole message”) display 3-D images without requiring special glasses. A true hologram doesn’t require a screen either, though the word is used liberally by manufacturers of similar technologies (in fact, Tupac’s hologram was not truly a hologram). Hologram resolution is measured in voxels, which are volumetric pixels (essentially a pixel with depth, as well as height and width). Holographic displays have been around for years, but are unlikely to be a commercial success until they can compete with today’s video display capabilities. To do this, they’ll have to function at a very high quality (both in voxel resolution and frame rate). It seems like holographic displays are catching up soon though, as they are popping up in designs for upcoming cars, phones, and simple displays, a sign that they could be very common in the near future.

The medical application for holographic technology is the ying to a scanner systems’ yang: high fidelity 3-D image display. As scanners become more effective and prevalent, an appropriate medium will be needed to display their info-packed 3-D data. Easy to use 3-D models and interactive projections could help physicians plan surgeries, care staff converse with co-workers, or store and display far more detail in medical records than currently available. Because 3-D images are more intuitive, they also have applications in home care with untrained users, or in educating patients on medical situations in clinics or remotely.

Holograms also offer a unique resource to medical device developers. Like Augmented Reality (AR) systems, they offer a tool to visualize and (in combination with a scanner) interact with conceptual models. That means developers can improve accessibility to early stage industrial designs to get feedback as quickly as possible on size, form, and usability. Unlike AR, they don’t need a headset, and so have the potential to be the superior technology for total immersion in these types of studies, especially where non-technical input is required.

There is less of a critical need for holograms in medical devices than some other developing technologies, but an increased availability of affordable displays means an important step forward in medical devices and patient care by the very nature of improved usability, higher fidelity devices. Both holograms and scanning systems can push medical device effectiveness forward another step, improving medical care worldwide.

Nigel Syrotuck

Nigel Syrotuck is a mechanical engineer at StarFish Medical, a medical device design company headquartered in Victoria, British Columbia.

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