It may look like a cool, cutting-edge headphone, but the headset from Italy’s Eurac Research is an instrument that measures a wearer’s heart rate, core temperature, and oxygen saturation, using sensors in the ear canal. Developed in conjunction with the companies Kerr Srl and Minnova Med, the MedSENS device works by placing an earplug-sized probe that has different sensors in the wearer’s external ear canal. The probe is hard-wired to an outer ear pad with a data screen, and that data can be wirelessly sent to other devices such as smartphones. The patented MedSENS instrument is currently in the prototype stage and its creators are looking for a production partner.
The ability to measure bio-signals through the ear canal is nothing new; earbuds have been commonly measuring heart rate and other biometrics for nearly a decade. The Raleigh-based tech company Valencell garnered attention for their technology in earbuds in 2014. What sets Eurac Research’s device apart from other similar “hearables” is the intended situational use: emergencies. Specifically, those in harsh weather conditions in which the victim may be hypothermic, making knowledge of their core temperature critical.
Not coincidentally, Eurac Research is based in Bolzano, Italy, dubbed “The Gateway to the Dolomites,” a mountain range in the Italian Alps. And the genesis of the device sprang from real-life situations. Eurac researcher Michela Masè says, “Thanks to the experience of some of us in mountain rescue and emergency service, we knew we wanted a noninvasive and easy-to-use instrument that combined temperature measurement with oxygen saturation measurement. There are already devices on the market that can be inserted into the ear, but they are too sensitive to external temperature.”
What temperatures can the device withstand? Eurac says they’ve tested the instrument in rescue simulations in which the temperatures ranged between minus-10 to minus-20 degrees Celsius (14 degrees to minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit). The tests took place in an extreme environment simulator called the terraXcube, which Eurac Research says can recreate conditions such as the “snowstorms, air pressure, and oxygen content at the peak of Mount Everest.” Eurac researcher Alessandro Micarelli says, “[We wanted] to test whether the use of the instrument was easy even, for example, with hands affected by the biting cold.”
As for large-scale production, Eurac Research’s Giacomo Strapazzon says, “I hope that this will happen as soon as possible: MedSENS, which was created with rescue in extreme contexts in mind, could in fact become a very useful tool in hospital practice as well, I’m thinking especially for use in operating rooms.”