New wearable device uses breathing patterns to track state of mind

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Personal health monitoring is a rapidly expanding business. Through the proliferation of “apps” on mobile devices, we are now able to monitor just about anything we want to, with updates provided for us on our smartphones and notifications broadcast for all to see through social media.

Medical News Today has previously investigated examples of this kind of technology. Last year, we examined three examples of self-tracking technology that monitor, among other things, how active you are during the day, your quality of sleep during the night and the amount of calories you consume.

A group based in San Francisco, CA, has been working on a new piece of technology that they believe can offer a form of self-tracking unlike any other currently available on the market.

They claim that the average person is only active for 16% of the day, meaning that most self-tracking devices that focus on activity will ignore the remaining 84%. Jonathan Palley, Spire co-founder, suggests that many activity tracker owners have grown dissatisfied by this unutilized amount of time.

In an interview with Medical News Today, Palley described what inspired the team to get started on their project:

“We came in and said, well, what about the other 84% of the day? The reality is that people are going to spend time in front of their computer, they’re going to spend time commuting. Can we create something that not only encourages activity and physical fitness, but also creates value? Something that creates a healthier lifestyle and a more productive day during that other 84%?”

By specifically tracking the device-wearer’s breathing, the team says that Spire can monitor not just the body, but also the wearer’s state of mind throughout the entire day.

Palley explained that breathing is something the body does automatically that is linked to different states of mind, and it could be actively controlled:

“When you’re not thinking about it, the signal is constantly changing; you’re holding your breath, changing the inhalation-exhalation rates, changing all these things that we see correlate to these different states of mind. You can consciously control these, and by extending your exhale you’re telling your body that you’re in a relaxed state, you’re in a safe place so it can lower cortisol levels and increase endorphins.”

The benefits of breathing

One could say that the health benefits of breathing are underrated. Obviously, respiration is an essential part of living, but its ubiquity is such that we often take it for granted.

The body releases hormones when it is under stress that produce a response known as the fight-or-flight response. It increases both heart and breathing rates and narrows the blood vessels. Evidence suggests that if the body remains in a state of stress for too long, then emotional and physical damage can occur.

Just as stress can stimulate certain physical responses in the body, breathing can also influence these involuntary bodily responses. By controlling our breathing, we can exercise a level of control over functions such as heart rate, blood pressure and circulation.

Abdominal breathing or diaphragmatic breathing, as opposed to breathing from the chest, achieves the following:

  • Forces air into the lungs
  • Pulls blood into the chest improving the venous return to the heart. This leads to improved stamina in both disease and athletic activity
  • Improves the flow of lymph, which is rich in immune cells
  • Helps prevent infection of the lung and other tissues
  • Stimulates the relaxation response that results in less tension and an overall sense of well-being.

The relaxation response mentioned here is regarded as key in the battle to relieve stress. It is suggested that it decreases metabolism, slows the heartbeat, relaxes the muscles, slows the breathing, decreases blood pressure and increases bodily levels of nitric oxide.

The American Institute of Stress (AIS) recommend breathing as the best way to invoke the relaxation response.

What does Spire do?

Spire monitors the wearer’s breath so that it can notify them when they are becoming stressed or unfocused. The makers claim that this insight helps the wearer to be more productive. They also say that the device helps to lower stress and inspires the wearer to move more throughout their day.

Spire
Spire clips onto pants or a bra and monitors the wearer’s breathing.
Image credit: Spire

The device provides notifications in order to help the wearer. For example, if the device registers that you are stressed due to shallow breathing, it will notify you and ask if you would like to do a breathing exercise.

It is also able to measure how many steps you have taken, whether you are standing up, sitting down or lying down, and how vigorous your movements are.

The device has been tested across a wide sample of body types and so should be able to function properly across all body shapes. It will direct the user on how to adjust its position on the body in order to achieve the best possible signal.

A pilot study was carried out on employees of LinkedIn, and 70% of participants reported that they felt significantly more focused and less tired while using Spire after a couple of weeks.

“As the world gets faster and more hectic,” says Spire co-founder Neema Moraveji in an interview with Tech Crunch, “peoples’ health becomes a combination of their physical health as well as their productivity and their focus.”

The team believes that Spire can track all three of these aspects, and so provides a product that can help guide its users toward a healthier state of being at any time of the day.

However, it does not track heart rate, body temperature or any other biological patterns. This is both due to the vast amount of data the team says can be extracted solely from breathing, and also for simplicity and ease.

How does it work?

Spire is worn on the hip or torso and can be clipped onto the waistband or bra. It senses activity, breathing and the position of the wearer’s body, and this information is automatically synchronized with a mobile app. This records and analyzes the data and gives feedback both immediately and over time.

Spire app2
Spire connects to a phone app, which notifies the wearer about their current state of mind.
Image credit: Spire

After being guided through a brief calibration tutorial, the device is ready to go. The user can set aspirations and goals for the device, and so choose what Spire notifies them about.

For example, they can choose whether to be notified if they have been sitting for more than 2 hours, or if they have been tense for 30 minutes. It can then provide an activity to do to relax, or suggest that the user get up and walk around if they so wish.

The device works in real-time, constantly responding to breathing. For the initial period of using Spire for the first time, it will be working out what the wearer’s average breath rate is and how their body reacts to different situations, recalibrating so the app will have an up-to-date picture of how the individual user’s body works.

The device has a battery life of around 7 days and is charged wirelessly, using a special pad that the device can simply be placed upon, negating the need for extra wires and plugs.

To begin with, Spire will only be available in a form that is compatible with the iOS. The team has said that once they have made the app as good as it can be on this platform, then they will look at porting it over to Android.

Spire will retail at $149.99 when the device ships in September this year.

Future developments

Spire in dock
A wireless docking station recharges the Spire device.
Image credit: Spire

Palley placed a lot of emphasis on the future of the device. Not only in the way in that the app works in real-time and is constantly recalibrating as it receives more information, but also as the app has been built specifically to allow the team to continuously bring in different content.

The app will launch with a handful of activities programmed in, but over time, more will be added following work by the team alongside other partners and developers.

The team is looking at broadening the range of activities that are suggested in order to help the user change the state of mind they are in, for example, from feeling stressed to relaxed, or from feeling relaxed to being focused.

They want to widen the functionality of the device, as well as find new ways in which to utilize the data the device’s sensors collect. The team is interested in the possibility of a device that is usable underwater, and tracking the movement of wheelchair users is something they could work on with a partner or developer.

It may be some time before the creators are able to fully realize their vision for the device, such is the import placed on user interaction, but they are fully committed to developing the Spire further and have planned other pilot studies for the near future.

Clinical application?

Remarking that respiratory illnesses are the third leading cause of death globally, as reported by the World Health Organization (WHO), Palley told Medical News Today about where the device could potentially go in the future:

“This is very much a consumer device right now, but we think that our technology, in terms of being able to capture respiratory data in a wearable form factor, can also have an impact in various clinical applications.”

Certainly, there are acute health implications for conditions such as stress that could be tracked with the device. Earlier in the month, Medical News Today reported on a study that linked stress to short-term memory loss in aging adults.

With wearable self-monitoring technology, there is a split between consumer-focused technology and medical devices: one kind of technology focused on providing a positive user experience and the other on providing sound clinical data. Palley said that he hoped that eventually Spire could bridge the gap:

“We see that there’s going to be this convergence where it comes together, of the consumer and of the medical, and we’re working towards that and developing a device that has all the great consumer functions but is adding a whole lot more data than just stats.”

Medical News Today also believes that a convergence is on the horizon and previously reported on developments in technology presented at the Wired Health summit earlier in the year. Keep a look out for future reports into new and innovative wearable technology on this website.

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