Interviews   

New Biosensors for Wearables and Mobile Arriving Soon – an Interview with Stanley Yang

I recently held a video call based interview with Stanley Yang, CEO of biosensing company NeuroSky. Stanley made a number of product revelations of interest:

  1. A cell phone that has extra sensors built-in for tracking stress and health.
  2. A new shirt that not only monitors your cardio signals but knows your gestures/motion (without requiring the use of a video camera).
  3. A new five-in-one small handheld WiFi/GSM connected device that measures health metrics of the entire family and uploads the data to the cloud.
  4. A new clinical grade sensor that can be embedded into watches and wristbands to measure blood pressure continuously. It is a world first only requiring one hand and does not require a pump (nor mini-pump).
  5. A toilet seat that automatically measures your cardio signals each time you sit on it.
  6. A new sensor to be built-into smartphones that allows all buttons to be eliminated.

Below is a full transcript.

Lee: What does NeuroSky do?

Stanley: We are a biosensing solutions company. We provide solutions for our customers when they need to understand biosignals from brainwaves to cardio signals to muscle signals. We also provide a software solution so it’s more turnkey.

Our customers buy the solutions and embed them in their devices, such as wristbands, smartwatches, and mobile devices. Whenever they need to embed features to measure human body signals, that’s where we come in.

Lee: Are you able to mention clients? If so, any related to the health and wellbeing space?

Stanley: On the health side, we have been embedded in several foreign company products, mostly in Asia so far. For example, we have been built into a smartphone from a company called Coolpad, which I believe is one of the top 3 or 4 smartphone makers in China. We have also been built into wristbands, such as this one called Life Beat. This was in collaboration with a company called Softbank in Japan. It tracks stress. This [shows a phone] cell phone tracks various different features from stress, to health.

Lee: The cell phone tracks?

Stanley: Yeah, the Coolpad cell phone has —

Lee: That cell phone, are you saying it has NeuroSky sensors in it?

Stanley: Yeah, it’s got two sensors, two touchpoints in the back that you can touch and measure your ECG. We derived several solutions from there. There are smart wearable shirts that have embedded ECG chips and sensors in them.

Lee: Are you able to say who the shirt was for?

Stanley: I can’t say them right now.

Lee: So there’s a shirt, and which sensors does it have?

Stanley: There are two shirts out there. They use ECG sensors to check — they put them on the front. You probably don’t feel them, but they’re there. Those are our technology, and they use that to check ECG signals.

Let me show you a few other products. Here’s an Arrow smartwatch. It has a sensor embedded in the back. This was announced several years ago. This is a phone case we built for Stanford Hospital & Clinics. There are two sensors here that you can use.

This is a device [shows a tiny square handheld device] where we work with one of our partners in Korea, and you see these sensors built in, and also sensors built in here. This particular product measures five things. It measures temperature, your ECG, your blood pressure, your blood glucose — invasively, with a little pinch, body fat, blood oxygen level.

Lee: Which product is that?

Stanley: This is not in the market yet so I can’t really discuss it, but I’m showing you an example. It’s a five-in-one device. Let me show you the screen.

Lee: What are the five again?

Stanley: We can program different things in there. For this one, you can have body temperature; the heart rate, and the heart rate portion you can get four measurements — your heartrate per minute, your HRV, your respiratory rate, blood pressure. Then you can also measure blood glucose – you have to poke your finger.. That’s not our technology but we embed it. You can do blood pressure by holding it this way. You can measure body fat, again holding it this way, using the ECG. And you can also measure the blood oxygen level.

Then we are in the middle of developing a blood pressure device that we already have a prototype that’s able to measure blood pressure continuously without the pump, basically. It can be embedded in a watch or any device.

Lee: Blood pressure can be embedded into a watch without a pump?

Stanley: Yes.

Lee: How is that being achieved?

Stanley: I can’t discuss the technology behind it at this point, at least not publicly. But we are in the process of working with hospitals and several countries’ FDA organization to get this product to the final stages.

Lee: Has anybody got blood pressure in a watch at the moment?

Stanley: There are various form factors and wrist style blood pressures but they have to use the pump to squeeze the wrist.

Lee: Has anybody else achieved it without the pump, i.e. something that is actually wearable?

Stanley: So far we’re the only one I’m aware of that’s doing that with this new technology. You can do it with a pulse transit time, a combination of ECG and PPG, but that technology requires calibration. It also requires two hands I believe. In this case you can do it with one hand.

Lee: So this sounds quite a breakthrough to me.

Stanley: So far all the customers who signed an NDA with use are quite excited with the breakthrough.

Lee: Awesome. That sounds great. When do you think we’ll see products of that in the market?

Stanley: It depends what countries. Some countries have the best FDA requirements and time that may go faster, for example the EU countries in general. The medical regulations are a lot faster than the US FDA, for example. Some countries don’t have this many hurdles to go through, so it depends. Again, we’re not a device provider. We provide the sensor that goes into other customers’ devices. We work closely with our customers to go through the FDA process of their market that they require.

Lee: I think this is very exciting to be able to measure blood pressure without a pump. I can’t help now but ask have you got anything else exciting lined up that you see of that scale?

Stanley: I have a smart shirt, and I wish I could tell you more and will be able to soon. It not only measures your cardio signals, it can measure your movement as well. If you move your arm this way, our sensor actually knows you’re moving it that way. Hence, you don’t need a camera to do gesture recognition anymore. You can actually do it without any video processing. That’s another breakthrough.

Lee: Do you think that type of technology, beyond gesture, can be used to know exactly what you were doing in terms of fitness routines at the gym?

Stanley: Yeah. For example, there are games, virtual reality things that the use cameras to monitor the user, such as a dancing game that used a camera. Then it has to process and analyze the image and be able to understand what you’re doing. With our motion sensing technology, and especially this bit you wear on your chest, you can detect your body movement without a camera. It can record what position you’re in. You can be this way or that way or whatever. In other words, we made it a lot easier to sense motion. At the same time, it takes a lot less computing power than the image analysis.

Lee: I want to ask what technology you’re using and how you’re achieving that, but I understand you can’t answer that today. I will be very intrigued when it’s in the news.

Stanley: It should be, very soon.

Lee: That sounds also exciting. Is there anything else you want to mention at the moment on the sensing front there? We have this sensing shirt. We can measure blood pressure without the pump.

Stanley: I think the five-in-one device I told you about is very exciting because it’s exciting to most customers right now. Not necessarily in the US because again it has to go through FDA and that might take a while. But it’s definitely moving ahead in many countries.

Lee: I would be more excited, for example, if I know it has Wi-Fi or it can plug in so I can get into the cloud data.

Stanley: It does. I just told you about the health features, but it does have Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. It can talk to your cell phone. There’s a version that we can put a SIM card in there and it can go directly to the cloud. And because we can even differentiate using ECG to differentiate which family members in your family is using it, so you don’t even need to tell it who’s using it, and it will record that data for you and sort things out. If it’s your data versus your wife’s data and so on and so forth. It can be sorted out in the cloud, and in a nice record keeping fashion.

Lee: I think all three are exciting. I want to push the futurist in you. For example, do you see more and more sensors becoming integrated with the mobile phone, physiological sensors? Do you think that’s a trajectory, just like we’ve got a camera in the mobile phone? Do you think we’ll get physiological measures?

Stanley: Yes, I do think so. I’m seeing a lot, a least from our clients. For example, there are two projects doing a very similar thing. How do you track an elderly person without him knowing how to wear a wearable or even how to charge a USB? How do you transfer your data from your wearable or mobile device to the cloud? How do you get an elderly person to do that if he or she is not so savvy with technology? How do you get people to use these devices for their health without forming new habits of behaviors, just go on their everyday existing behavior and we can still get that? It’s very difficult.

Those are challenges. I’ve seen our sensors being built into several smart appliances that make sense. I don’t want to waste too much time but let me give you an example. We have two customers that are building our sensors and you won’t see them – they’re being built into toilet seats. When you sit on the toilet seat you come in contact with a toilet seat. You get measured. In this case, you have to be there for at least 30 seconds, maybe a minute or two. You get quite a bit of data.

Lee: What kind of data are you getting there?

Stanley: You can get your cardio signals, your heart condition.

Lee: This is getting your heart condition through your legs?

Stanley: Yes. You can get your ECG through your leg. For example, this device can get it by touching. With your legs, there are major arteries running through our legs. To measure your cardio signal, the most important thing is you need to cross the heart and form a loop. If I use my hand, for example, if I wear this wristband, I put it on my right hand but I touch it with my left hand. That forms a loop crossing my heart or from your lower area to your upper area. It doesn’t matter, just form a loop across your heart, and you can get a ECG signal.

Lee: The toilet seat will take the ECG?

Stanley: Not exactly the same as you go through your hands or at the chest, because these are what we call 1-lead ECGs. That’s when you get wired up in the hospital they use even up to 12 leads in different locations. But all these locations you can read ECG. What you do is you use software to analyze them, to make sure you have a consistent ECG.

Also, for all these home measurements, most of our customers are not aiming to figure out exactly what’s wrong with you. You can go to the hospital to do that. They just are simply monitoring, and it needs to be good enough to know something’s wrong with you. They don’t need to know exactly what’s wrong with you. They just need to know something’s wrong so you better go to the hospital to get checked out.

That’s what monitoring is all about. When you monitor anything, you want to know if something is wrong first. Then you investigate what’s wrong. So the monitoring devices doesn’t have to be exactly oh, something’s wrong and it’s exactly this, and you better tell the doctor you have this problem. It’s quite doable, and we do have two clients that are doing that.

Unfortunately, or fortunately, again, different countries have different FDA requirements. When it comes to health applications it all depends on how fast each country or region’s FDA departments can move. You might see these products in some markets faster than the other.

Lee: That’s an interesting point. You may see some of the latest products in some countries but not in others for some times. That’s a strange scenario. Normally we’re used to Apple releasing a new say MacBook in the US and then however long in the UK, and then the rest of Europe and so forth. Is that not strange for you to hear of cutting edge devices appearing first outside the US?

Stanley: No, I have seen a lot of very brilliant design and cutting edge technologies that don’t even exist in the US. They exist elsewhere. It’s all up to the design and invention. There are a lot of gadgets I’ve seen in Japan that they don’t even try to sell in the US, and vice versa.

Lee: There’s a lot of talk about medical grade sensors going into mobile and wearables. Is this anything you’re aware of, this medical grade being thrown around lately, or clinical grade sensors? Is it because the cost is coming down, are they getting better? Is it because of demand?

Stanley: We definitely get a lot of that inquiry from customers as well. I think primarily what’s happening is everybody is building all these wearables and they count steps, and they use an accelerometer to check motions. At best, they put in a light PPG, LED light to shine on your skin to calculate your heart rate.

That’s it. So the biggest question I get asked or people as k our clients as what’s next. Are these things useful? For example, step counting, if you’re an avid athlete or fitness person it may be very useful for you. But for a person I meet, yeah, I wear one, but I pretty much know how many steps I would walk on Monday and Tuesday.

On weekends I don’t move around sometimes, so after a while you realize you have a habit, and you have a cycle in your life. After you see the same data over and over again, your physical thing, it becomes boring. I know that. Unless you’re trying to train yourself and do something, for fitness and athletes, it makes sense for them to track. they need to achieve a certain level. But for most consumers that’s not what we’re after.

I like to know if my wristband can tell me if I’m somehow eating way more red meat than I should, or somehow my heart is not in such a good condition, or for drinkers I had a bit too much.

Lee: Meaningful, insightful?

Stanley: Rather than this is how many steps you walk and this is what your heart rate is. What does that mean do me? I have no idea. If I walk 10,000 steps is the result that’s good for me identical to if you walk 10,000 steps? Probably not. Different bodies will have different experience and results. It doesn’t mean much. It means I’ve physically done something but what’s next. Can you provide deeper meaning so that it’s more meaningful for the user?

You see a lot of these comments from consumers or analysts. They’re talking about wearable devices are nice to have and not must haves. A lot of them comment that way. Why is that? If I don’t carry my cell phone and walk out the door, I feel some anxiety. But if I don’t have my wearable it’s not so bad. That’s why it’s nice to have them, not a must have.

I can’t say that for everybody but for the majority of people that’s the case. That’s why we’re asking the wearable developers, the wearable device companies to develop something so it becomes a must have, it has features that I must have. A smartphone is a must have for me and for many people I know. I have to have it around me. But not a wearable.

Lee: Do you believe a wearable will become a must have?

Stanley: I don’t know if it will become a must have. For example, it’s very interesting. I wear a watch still. It’s must have for me. It’s a habit I’ve formed since I was a child. I need to read what time it is. I know I can get it from my wearable. I know I can get it from my cell phone. But my habit is oh, that’s the time.

Lee: First of all, Tim Cook says that the Apple watch will become a must have. The medical staff that they’ve been hiring, I’m fairly certain he’s right that wearables will become a must have. I can soon see the day where you are in fear of losing health, even in a given day, like losing health points if I can call it that, if you don’t wear it.

You’ll be in fear that you make a wrong menu choice for example at a restaurant; it doesn’t fit your physiology, your genetics, etc. So I must admit personally I see a future where wearables are not only a must have, but I actually see you quite adorned in what I’ll call wearable jewelry, almost cocooned, and you’re almost in fear just anxiety like leaving your phone, of not wearing sensors.

What I see coming is sensors hooked up to machine learning. Machine learning will work out what I’ll call optimizations for you, in terms of your moving, your sunlight, you’re not eating, you’re eating because patterns of what we’ll call fasting and not fasting. They’ll be able to work in your epigenetics and aim to increase your longevity and your resilience against sickness, for example. That’s only at the physical level, the physical health level.

Eventually, I see them moving more towards understanding your emotions in a day, and understanding what upsets you, and what increases positive emotions, and learning to engineer you more towards positive emotions. Eventually within a couple of decades I see them being able to understand what a human lifetime actually means, and what it means to “optimize” a human lifetime.

So if we can go from stopping us getting sick because chronic diseases are the biggest killer now, and move towards bolstering health assets like positive emotions, and move all the way within two decades into what I call optimizing our lifetimes and decision making — we’re very poor at decision making. I won’t go into it, but we will become augmented by machine intelligence.

That draws me into a question. Do you think that man and machine are crossing an integration point?

Stanley: I think eventually they will, but I don’t think they’re doing that now. That’s what we’re hoping for though. But the man and machine are still a bit far apart, in my opinion.

Lee: Why are you hoping for it?

Stanley: Because it takes biosensors to do that, to interface. It’s good for business.

Lee: It’s good for NeuroSky. I thought you were going to say it’s good for humanity.

Stanley: Well, it’s good for humanity as well, but it’s good for NeuroSky too, for selfish reasons. And for human reasons.

Lee: The cell phone in 2007 when the iPhone came out, it got a couple of extra sensors, a gyroscope and accelerometer. I don’t think anybody expected much development to take place around that. Yet we see it’s a fundamental data point, sensor data in so many applications it’s enabled. The same with the camera phone that got built in. Prior to 2007 mobile phones only had one sensor, the microphone. Do you see any more sensors coming to the mobile phone you’re able to name or specify?

Stanley: Actually we are involved in one very revolutionary sensor design using a sensor for mobile phone that I can’t talk too much about. All I can say is you can probably lose the buttons if you have that technology in the smartphone.

Lee: So UI/UX shift is enabled by the sensor?

Stanley: Yeah. I can’t talk much about that. It’s very stealth mode for a client right now.

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