Have Biosensor, Will Liberate Data

Have Biosensor, Will Liberate Data

How does liberating the data from a sports body monitor impact a baby’s health in a remote clinic? In MAKE vol. 29, the “DIY Superhuman” issue, hardware hacker Kyle Machulis explains how his OpenYou project is figuring out how to hack into mass-manufactured consumer biosensor devices and access the data they collect. This is great news for DIY and extreme environment medical technology.

Last summer our team was in Ocotal, Nicaragua visiting a local hospital’s delivery room to check out their medical equipment. On the surface, the beige and aqua boxes looked clean and neatly arranged. Closer inspection revealed that ward’s only patient monitor was damaged. Patient monitors are those machines that you see at an intensive care unit with multiple graphs showing blood pressure, heart rate, breathing rate, and sometimes a baby’s heart rate and other vital signs. In this case, the model was older but the biosensors still worked. The problem was that the mechanism that unrolled the roll of paper for plotting on, like with a polygraph machine or a seismograph, was damaged long ago. This meant that the monitor could only display an instantaneous reading on its LED numerical display, and the doctor could not see a time-plot of the baby’s ongoing progress.

What if we could simply intercept the signal that is sent to the instantaneous display and log it electronically on a cheap LCD? How do we begin to tap into the data feed? And why can’t we do that for lots of other devices: pedometers, blood pressure monitors, spirometers, pulse oximeters? Fast forward to page 32 of MAKE vol. 29. Reading that, I saw that Kyle Machulis’ hardware hacking work could tap and liberate the same type of data trapped in that device in Ocotal, Nicaragua.

I visited the openYou.org website and found recipes for hacking into medical devices mostly aimed at the Quantified Self (QS) crowd, but these translate into fantastic applications in developing world, hand-me downs begging to be liberated. Our next goal is to look at how the available libraries can tap into the available inventory of medical equipment being used our Nicaraguan partner’s local clinics. Pulse oximeters with a USB port can be found for as little as $50 online. Using Kyle’s growing libraries of hardware unlockers could turn these devices into exciting biosensors.

MAKE Volume 29We have the technology (to quote The Six Million Dollar Man), but commercial tools for exploring, assisting, and augmenting our bodies really can approach a price tag of $6 million. Medical and assistive tech manufacturers must pay not just for R&D, but for expensive clinical trials, regulatory compliance, and liability — and doesn’t help with low pricing that these devices are typically paid for through insurance, rather than purchased directly. But many gadgets that restore people’s abilities or enable new “superpowers” are surprisingly easy to make, and for tiny fractions of the costs of off-the-shelf equivalents. MAKE Volume 29, the “DIY Superhuman” issue, explains how.


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I design medical devices for the developing world at MIT. Our lab creates DIY kits called MEDIKits for docs nurses in the field to come up with their own solutions.

View more articles by Jose Gomez-Marquez


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