Throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen many companies trying to use “smart” face masks. Perhaps the most useful element has just been revealed not by a company, but by engineers at Northwestern University. Dubbed a “FaceBit” – the engineers responsible for this project describe it as a “Fitbit for the face” – this isn’t a complete mask, but rather a sensor that can magnetically attach to N95 and surgical masks already worn by health care workers.
Photo: Northwestern University
Track health in your face mask
FaceBit is described both in the research article “FaceBit: The Platform for Smart Face Masks” and in a news post on the Northwestern University website. Josiah Hester, PhD, PhD in the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, led development of the device.
As the name suggests, FaceBit is all about tracking various health metrics. Sensors in the small pad created by Hester and his team can track the wearer’s heart rate and breathing rate through the mask attached to it. In this Northwestern University news post, Hester explains that FaceBit is sensitive enough to detect imperceptible movements our faces make whenever our heart beats. With that in mind, it’s no wonder FaceBit can also track something more visible like breathing rate.
The heart rate and respiratory rate data is then uploaded to a companion smartphone app, allowing users to see their health data, just as if they were wearing a Fitbit. FaceBit also tracks the total time users wear their masks, and can also give healthcare workers a window into when they should take a break, as higher breathing and heart rates are often associated with higher stress levels.
FaceBit can also alert users when the seal on the N95 mask they’re wearing has been broken. While it can’t directly check if the face seals are still in place, it can detect burrs that might be strong enough to break and alert the user that they may need to repair their mask. He can also tell when the mask becomes too loose to ensure a proper fit.
FaceBit has a very long battery life
Perhaps the most impressive part about FaceBit is its long battery life. While FaceBit comes with a built-in battery, the small size of the board limits the size of this battery. FaceBit can get small amounts of energy from sunlight and even a user’s breathing and movement, giving it a potential battery life of up to 11 days.
This is impressive and necessary too. In the video above, Hester made it clear that he didn’t want to develop a mask that had to be recharged every few hours. Eleven days of battery life exceeds that of many smartwatches we see today, but again, the low-power components on the board itself (along with the fact that it doesn’t have a screen) help ensure users can squeeze as much as possible out of that battery. small.
Northwestern University says that in the future, we could see devices like FaceBit powered entirely by “harvested thermal and kinetic energy”. While Hester says FaceBit still needs to go through clinical trials, it appears he and his team have devised a capable device here. They’ve also launched it as an open source project so anyone can build on the work the team has already done.