by: Cory Schultz and Iltifat Husain, MD

The concept of whether a mobile device such as a smartphone can be a sensory object may not be as far fetched as it initially seems.  After all, a smartphone has many functions that compliment the senses.

It has the ability to make calls which are heard, functions by touching the screen which can provide haptic feedback, and includes a camera that lets you capture images as well as bar codes, and other visual data.

This opinion is shared by researchers at Belgium based IMEC ( Interuniversity Microelectronics Center), who also believe a  hand-held communications device  is a handy sensory object.  The only missing sense, according to the researchers, is smell, which they hope to integrate into devices by 2015 by adding embedded “nose sensors” into smartphones.

Researchers see potential in the healthcare arena:

“Says Luc Van Den Hove, CEO, IMEC, ‘you can use it to check out freshness of food, test air quality or measure alcohol level in your body after a party.’ A pretty handy tool and another reason why a mobile is your best friend.”

There could be some indications for physicians as well — think the positive “whiff” test for bacterial vaginosis — adding potassium hydroxide to a microscopic slide to help confirm your diagnosis. Or, being able to tell by smell whether a patient’s surgical wound is starting to become infected.  As physicians, we often describe what our olfactory system is telling us in our assessment of patient pathology.

IMEC performs research in nano-electronics and nano-technology. It is composed of more than 1,900 people. Their research is applied in the fields of healthcare, smart electronics, sustainable energy, and safer transport. The vision of the company is to shape the future by leading the development of nano-enabled solutions that allow people to have a better life in a sustainable society. This is bolstered by Roger De Keersmaecker, senior VP, strategic relations for IMEC.

“We are moving towards a human Body Area Network (BAN) type of systems. By 2014 more than 400 million wearable wireless sensors will be in use for things like monitoring heart rate or blood glucose levels. The data will be wirelessly transmitted to hospitals helping doctors react to emergencies quickly or advice patients on better lifestyles.”

Body Area Networks (BANs) are a topic we have discussed at length in previous posts. We noted that the data collected by BANs will create significant business opportunities for start-ups focused in cloud computing, data management/analytics, and bioinformatics verticals.  This new smelling technology is one such potential business opportunity.

IMEC is also working with Arise Labs in Bangalore, India, to develop  low cost devices based on nano-electro-mechanical systems technology, or NEMS.

“Such devices will find applications in remote healthcare, security systems and retail. Among the products it is planning to launch is a ‘health necklace’, The necklace is a body monitor, which when worn will continuously transmit data to any connected system, like a smart phone or a hospital monitor. Such a product is aimed at remote health monitoring for rural areas.”

Source: Economic times