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Smart earring shows promise for monitoring temperature and stress

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Researchers in the US have deveped the Thermal Earring – a wireless wearable that continuously monitors a user’s earlobe temperature.

In a study of six users, the device outperformed a smartwatch at sensing skin temperature during periods of rest and also showed promise for monitoring signs of stress, eating, exercise and ovulation.

Co-lead author Qiuyue (Shirley) Xue is a University of Washington (UW) doctoral student in the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering.

The researcher said: “I wear a smartwatch to track my personal health, but I’ve found that a lot of people think smartwatches are unfashionable or bulky and uncomfortable.

“I also like to wear earrings, so we started thinking about what unique things we can get from the earlobe.

“We found that sensing the skin temperature on the lobe, instead of a hand or wrist, was much more accurate.

“It also gave us the option to have part of the sensor dangle to separate ambient room temperature from skin temperature.”

The wearable prototype is about the size and weight of a small paperclip and has a 28-day battery life.

A magnetic clip attaches one temperature sensor to a user’s ear, while another sensor dangles about an inch below it for estimating room temperature.

The earring can be personalised with fashion designs made of resin (in the shape of a flower, for example) or with a gemstone, without negatively affecting its accuracy.

Creating a wearable small enough to pass as an earring, yet robust enough that users would have to charge it only every few days, presented an engineering challenge, the researchers explained.

Co-lead author Yujia (Nancy) Liu was a UW masters student in the electrical and computer engineering department when doing the research and is now at the University of California San Diego.

The researcher said: “It’s a tricky balance.

“Typically, if you want power to last longer, you should have a bigger battery. But then you sacrifice size. Making it wireless also demands more energy.”

The researchers made the earring’s power consumption as efficient as possible, while also making space for a Bluetooth chip, a battery, two temperature sensors and an antenna.

Instead of pairing the earring with a device, which uses more power, the earring uses Bluetooth advertising mode — the transmissions a device broadcasts to show it can be paired.

After reading and sending the temperature, the earring goes into deep sleep to save power.

Because continuous earlobe temperature has not been studied widely, the researchers also explored potential applications to guide future research.

In five people with fevers, the average earlobe temperature rose 10.62 degrees Fahrenheit (5.92 degrees Celsius) compared with the temperatures of 20 healthy patients, suggesting the earring’s potential for continuous fever monitoring.

Co-author Dr. Mastafa Springston is a clinical instructor at the Department of Emergency Medicine in the UW School of Medicine.

The researcher said: “In medicine we often monitor fevers to assess response to therapy — to see, for instance, if an antibiotic is working on an infection.

“Longer term monitoring is a way to increase sensitivity of capturing fevers, since they can rise and fall throughout the day.”

While core body temperature generally stays relatively constant outside of fever, earlobe temperature varies more, presenting several novel uses for the novel device.

In small proof-of-concept tests, the wearable detected temperature variations correlated with eating, exercising and experiencing stress.

When tested on six people at rest, the earring’s reading varied by 0.58 F (0.32 C) on average, placing it within the range of 0.28 C to 0.56 C necessary for ovulation and period tracking; a smartwatch varied by 0.72 C.

Xue said: “Current wearables like Apple Watch and Fitbit have temperature sensors, but they provide only an average temperature for the day, and their temperature readings from wrists and hands are too noisy to track ovulation.

“So we wanted to explore unique applications for the earring, especially applications that might be attractive to women and anyone who cares about fashion.”

While the research team found several promising potential applications for the Thermal Earring, their findings were preliminary, since the focus was on the range of potential uses.

They need more data to train their models for each use case and more thorough testing before the earring might be used by the public.

For future iterations of the device, Xue is working to integrate heart rate and activity monitorin and is also interested in potentially powering the device from solar or kinetic energy from the earring swaying.

Xue said: “Eventually, I want to develop a jewellery set for health monitoring.

“The earrings would sense activity and health metrics such as temperature and heart rate, while a necklace might serve as an electrocardiogram monitor for more effective heart health data.”

Raymond Smith/University of Washington

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