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Northwestern Researchers Develop a Digital Health Facemask for Clinicians

Analysis  |  By Eric Wicklund  
   January 13, 2022

Dubbed the 'FaceBit,' the quarter-sized sensor array attaches to any mask and tracks the wearer's respiration and heart rate, as well as the mask's fit.

Researchers at Northwester University have developed a digital health attachment for a facemask, which they’ve dubbed the FaceBit.

The quarter-sized, battery-powered sensor attaches to any N95, cloth or surgical mask with a magnet, and can monitor a user’s respiration rate, heart rate and time wearing the mask, as well as how well the mask fits. The data is transferred to an mHealth app, which allows the wearer to monitor his or her health in real time and receive alerts when the monitors sense something amiss.

The project, funded by a National Science Foundation Grant for Rapid Response Research, was recently detailed in the journal of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM).

“We wanted to design an intelligent face mask for health care professionals that does not need to be inconveniently plugged in during the middle of a shift,” Josiah Hester, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering and computer science who led the device development team, said in a news story published by the university. “We augmented the battery’s energy with energy harvesting from various sources, which means that you can wear the mask for a week or two without having to charge or replace the battery.” 

Hester and his colleagues say the FaceBit gathers physiological data to “help wearers better understand their own bodies in order to make beneficial health decisions.” And by monitoring breathing and heart rate, the mask can also detect stress and alert the wearer. That information could also be collected by health system administrators to study staff stress.

The researchers also consulted with healthcare providers in designing the sensor array, finding through surveys that doctors and nurses were most concerned about the mask’s fit. Clinicians periodically go through a 20-minute “fit test” to determine whether a mask fits properly.

“If you wear a mask for 12 hours or longer, sometimes your face can become numb,” Hester said in the news story. “You might not even realize that your mask is loose because you cannot feel it or you are too burnt out to notice. We can approximate the fit-testing process by measuring mask resistance. If we see a sudden dip in resistance, that indicates a leak has formed, and we can alert the wearer.”

Hester said he hops to someday develop a battery-free mask, perhaps by harvesting thermal or kinetic energy to power the sensors.

“FaceBit provides a first step toward practical on-face sensing and inference, and provides a sustainable, convenient, comfortable option for general health monitoring for COVID-19 frontline workers and beyond,” Hester said. “I’m really excited to hand this off to the research community to see what they can do with it.”

Eric Wicklund is the associate content manager and senior editor for Innovation, Technology, and Pharma for HealthLeaders.

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