Far sight

A remote sensing machine to measure vital signs will be used in the next Olympic games

Published: Monday 15 April 1996

DONT be surprised if while watching the Atlanta Olympic games later this year, you get the image of an ECG (Electrocardiogram - graph showing a persons heart conditions) on your TV screen. These would be the vital signs of the athlete, who is performing, being measured by a motion detector placed at a distance.

Designed a decade ago at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, the motion detector did not see the light of the day till recently because of the institutes internal problems. It was originally designed with Pentagon backing to monitor the vital signs of fallen soldiers from across a battlefield. Now the Olympic organisers, who have helped in its revival, think it can spice up some of the dull sporting events.

The motion detector can pick up any faint movements in the chest from a distance. Earlier field trials have shown that it can pick up movements successfully from 300 metres away. It picks up chest motion caused due to breathing and also the subtle vibrations caused by the pumping action of the heart.

Patented by Georgia Tech, the devise can replace medical diagnostic equipment like the ECG or even the physical contact of the patient with the doctor or nurse, when measuring heart functions.

The motion detector has other uses as well. When mounted above a baby's crib it could become a wireless monitor and sound off an alarm when the child's vital signs begin to weaken. Or, it could be finely tuned so as to help rescue teams sift through earthquake or building collapse rubble. The tool could also be used by military personnel in order to find out the number of people in a room or as part of a lie detector test.

As of now, there is no updated prototype ready for real-life testing and it is not even clear whether all the 8- 10 prototypes required during the Games would be ready by July 19, when the Games begin. Georgia Tech has -assigned a team of graduate students with a professor to produce a workable model before the Olympics from the original prototypes.

The original prototypes resemble a topless VCR full of soldered circuitry' which is attatched to a megaphone-like antenna for receiving and giving out microwave signals. The Signals are processed and recorded on paper scrolls. For some months now, the students have been trying to route the sensor signals through a digital-processing computer chip. The resultant signals Show up as waves on the computer screeb with peaks denoting heartbeats and valleys the breaths.

According to the Georgia Tech project director, Jim Toler, it is not going to be an easy task to tap the full potential of the monitor, with just the students working on it. The motion detector has a long way to go, and its development will require more money. Toler believes that eventually, medical researchers may be able to translate the monitors signals into the detailed information produced by EKG machines, which determine not only heart and breathing rates but also the nature of blood-flow blockages and the extent of damage to the heart muscles.

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