Smartphone cameras and apps may soon be indispensable for health and medicine, especially for digital healthcare at home. Clinical-grade biometric sensors, machine-taught algorithms, and cloud-based healthcare platforms empower new smartphone apps to play increasingly important roles in healthcare, especially in remote patient monitoring (RPM). Apps also can aid in screening for potential illness and medical conditions, diagnosis, and care planning and management. Researchers at the University of California San Diego (USCD) are working on an app that uses a smartphone with a near-infrared (NIR) camera for neurological disease screening.

Engineers from the UCSD Digital Health Lab and the UCSD Center for Mental Health Technology (MHTech) collaborated on the app. The app uses the NIR camera to detect pupil size. The app tracks how a user’s pupil changes in size, which is a potential measure of the user’s cognitive health. Pupillometry is useful in detecting neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, according to UCSD MHTech Center director and psychiatry professor Eric Granholm. The team presented a paper that describes the technology at the ACM Computer Human Interaction Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI 2022).

In addition to the smartphone’s NIR camera, the UCSD app uses the phone’s selfie camera to take a color image to calculate the distance from the camera and the user’s eye. The app converts the NIR pupil image size photo into millimeters. According to the UCSD researchers, their app’s pupil size detection compares with pupil size measurements with the current gold standard called a pupillometer.

The app’s technology is impressive, but the UCSD engineers also designed the user experience to be accessible by older adults at home. The UX factors include a simple app interface that uses voice commands, graphic-based instructions, and an inexpensive plastic scope that helps the user line up the smartphone camera with their eye. The UCSD group continues to work on the platform’s usability for older adults and solutions for people with various physical limitations. The focus on supporting digital health at home with the pupillometry app is a strong win in our view.