By Allison Ines
As of July 2011, 35% of mobile users own smartphones and it is widely accepted that all mobile users will own smartphones by the end of this decade. Many healthcare companies seek to provide their services to patients and healthcare professionals alike by means of creating smartphone applications (apps) that are both user- and wallet-friendly. The young mobile health (mHealth) market raked in $718 million in 2011 solely from profit on smartphone apps, over a sevenfold increase from the $100 million profit in 2010.
Many sophisticated apps are penetrating the mHealth market as companies begin to incorporate Augmented Reality (AR) technology into their services. AR implements technology to analyze our sensory perceptions and is considered a “mixed” or “mediated” reality because the technology adds virtual overlays in real time. AR is comprised of three basic elements – a computer processor, camera and display – and it is for this reason that smartphones serve as an ideal candidate for the distribution of handheld, AR medical services.
Prior to the addition of smartphone medical apps, quick response (QR) codes served as the backbone of the mHealth market. QR codes are a type of data matrix barcode that can be read with a cell phone camera to access information about the object it is affixed to. Among other uses, QR codes may be placed on medication labels to provide pharmacy and physician contact information and identify specific drug reactions; on food and drink packages to present interactive calorie counters; and on medical devices/monitors to offer how-to information in text, audio and video form.
To incorporate AR technology into this premise, the software developers at Gravity Jack have invented quick augmented reality (QAR). QAR allows virtual information to directly overlay a data matrix barcode through the use of browsAR, Gravity Jack’s unique QAR-code reader app, instead of having to view the information through a Web browser. Although current uses are limited to personalized QAR codes displaying Facebook and business profiles, there is great promise for their technology to penetrate the mHealth market to promote patient education.
Many medical AR smartphone apps designed by healthcare professionals have been marketed to assist fellow colleagues by providing supplemental tools specific to their line of work. WG Healthcare developed the Hallux Angles iPhone app to aid in the pre-operative radiographic planning process used by foot surgeons.
By aligning the iPhone with forefoot bones pictured on an x-ray film (using the camera and on-screen guides), the built-in goniometer and accelerometers can measure specific angles – the Distal Metatarsal Articular Angle, Inter-Phalangeal Angle and Hallux Valgus Angle – and record measurements for patients directly on their phone for future reference.
A similar program is the CobbMeter app developed by Dr. Fredric P. Jacquot for spinal care professionals. The CobbMeter is designed to measure the Cobb angle, kyphosis angle and the sacral slope on vertical spine radiographs using integrated position sensors, and claims to accurately measure within one-tenth of a degree, making it more precise than the tools used in everyday practice.
A number of healthcare AR smartphone apps are geared specifically towards patients. The AED4.EU app, created by the Radboud University Nijmegen Medical Centre and only available in the Netherlands, allows patients to locate the nearest automated external defibrillator (AED) registered in their independent database using Layar, an AR browser for smartphones that overlays information on maps using built-in GPS. By turning on the camera, lifting the phone and facing a street, icons pointing to the nearest AED will pop up on the device in real time. There are currently more than 20,000 AEDs registered and the general public is encouraged to register their AEDs online (www.aed4.eu) in order to potentially save lives of those who suffer from cardiac arrest. MediaspreeLLC’s iBlemish app for iPhones uses advanced “complexion matrix” image effects and high-resolution camera optics to scan and reveal skin damage on the face, from blemishes and blackheads to sun damage and abscesses, which could potentially lead to early detection of precancerous cells.
The incorporation of AR into mobile phones is still relatively new and has its limitations. Current GPS technology on smartphones is only accurate within nine meters and doesn’t work well indoors. Developments in the technology are also addressing issues such as system temporal delays and inaccurate depth perception. Another important concern is the potential overreliance on the AR system itself: important cues from the environment might be missed, proving to be hazardous to the user. Preventative measures must be made, such as guidelines in the development and use of AR handheld apps.
The mHealth market already contains countless smartphone apps that are beneficial to and easily accessible for both the patient and the professional. With continued research on the dynamics of AR on handhelds and the production of new and upgraded smartphones, companies will be able to present new portable and innovative medical services that can potentially make the smartphone- acclimated public more proactive and responsible with their health.
Allison Ines Interactive Media Institute San Diego, California email@example.com www.vrphobia.com
President of Virtual Reality Medical Institute (VRMI) in Brussels, Belgium. Executive VP Virtual Reality Medical Center (VRMC), based in San Diego and Los Angeles, California. CEO of Interactive Media Institute a 501c3 non-profit Clinical Instructor in Department of Psychiatry at UCSD Founder of CyberPsychology, CyberTherapy, & Social Networking Conference Visiting Professor at Catholic University Milan.