The accelerometers and audio features embedded into the latest generation of smartphones make these mobile devices suitable for healthcare monitoring of elderly people and for certain kinds of risk prevention.

Remote monitoring: latest smartphone functionality provides permanent sensor capability

The latest smartphones now come equipped with an accelerometer, a gyroscope, camera, GPS, digital compass and microphone, which enable the development of more sophisticated applications based on the user’s physical patterns. Such tools, developed for games as well as more everyday activities, can also be used to record a stream of data on the user’s real-time physical activity without his/her knowledge.  A report from the Deutsche Telekom Laboratory in tandem with Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, puts forward a system for using this data for the purposes of remote monitoring, especially of elderly people, and as a basis for secure user-recognition.

Mobile footprint

Noting that connected objects, notably mobile phone apps, are already widely used in the fields of sport and wellbeing, the German-Singaporean researchers suggest using the measurement functionality already embedded in modern smartphones to turn the device into a permanent sensor tool. While some people might worry about the implications of having one’s movements under constant surveillance, the usefulness of this approach appears to outweigh such risks. The authors explain how the accelerometer in the phone can be used to build up an identifiable pattern of movement when the user is walking or at rest and describe the ActivityMonitor programme which they have developed, including two apps that transmit the data from the device to a server and analyse the information for use by the ‘agent’ in charge of the monitoring process. To reduce traffic on the server, the app uses screenshot capture. After analysing several sets of data, the programme is able to construct an activity pattern pertaining to the individual so that in future the system can recognise normal activity and detect any unfamiliar or ‘non-regular’ movements.  Such deviations from standard behaviour, such as a different walking pattern, can be a valuable sign of medical problems affecting the user, especially if s/he is of advanced years.

Potential uses

Adding in audio information recorded by the smartphone may also help to secure the device itself against unauthorised access.  Mobile phones can therefore be equipped with a multi-layer security system based on detecting abnormal movement/sound patterns – such as a hard fall followed by zero movement, indicating loss of the device from a pocket, or a different ambulatory rhythm  – at which point the phone would be switched off and the user requested to re-authenticate his/her identity. Most of these features already exist in more or less embryonic form on the apps market. The value of the Deutsche Telekom-Nanyang study however is that it applies scientific rigour to the question and to the analysis of the results of their experiments. Surveillance of elderly persons and phone-based security measures are after all measures whose implementation will not depend on individuals but on organisations or companies and their adoption will require careful study and consideration.

By Quentin Capelle