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Wireless routers could spy on your breathing and heartbeat



Called Vital-Radio, the system needs no sensors attached to the body, yet is nearly as accurate as conventional methods. Its measurements are wireless and even work through walls, so can keep tabs on your vital signs as you watch TV in the lounge or read or sleep in the bedroom. The team behind it believe it could be used to monitor and improve patient health in hospitals and at home.

“Breathing and heart rate would be interesting in hospitals if you want to monitor people without having things on their body,” says team member Fadel Adib. But the system could have a more surprising application: inferring our emotional state. What’s more, it could be built into a home Wi-Fi router, making it a hub not just for internet connections but also for collecting health data.

Vital-Radio works like a bit like radar: it transmits using a part of the radio spectrum similar to that used for Wi-Fi, then watches the reflected signals for imprints that indicate life. It also measures how long it takes the reflected wave to return – its “time of flight”. Each object in the vicinity, people included, will reflect the signals with a slightly different flight time depending on distance from the antenna.

The system then analyses the signals for the telltale signs that they bounced off a human – usually modulations that indicate movement. The rising and falling of our chest creates a distinct signature, and even the pulse in our neck, imperceptible to the eye, can be seen in the reflected signals. The team presented Vital-Radio earlier this week at the CHI computer conference in Seoul, South Korea.

Although the obvious applications lie in remote health monitoring, the physiological signals the system picks up often betray something that computer scientists are increasingly interested in – our emotions.


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