Electronic Design

Keeping E-Tabs On Health, Location & Information

Medical Electronics are going wireless. Location technologies will soon be ubiquitous. And, voice recognition no longer stutters.

Every year in this industry, some market segments seem to attract more attention and move faster than others. One of the sectors that reached hot market status this year is medical electronics. By itself, medical imaging is an $18 billion global market. Parks Associates, which tracks the industry, estimates that the total digital home health market in the U.S. will grow at an average annual rate of 36% and turn into a $2.1 billion industry in 2010 (Fig. 1). Most of this growth will be driven by the rapid expansion of wellness monitoring programs and online patient-physician messaging services.

Several wireless OEMs and chip manufactures have already identified healthcare electronics as a fast-growing market and have been quick to respond. Microchip Technology and Texas Instruments have formed vertical business units to develop products that serve the specific needs of the medical community.

Traditional consumer electronics (CE) OEMs—relying on their skills in developing highly miniaturized products, their brands, and their distribution—are also testing the market. Together with medical device manufactures, they're bringing new meaning to the term "personal electronics."

In an industry where attractive design and miniaturization are prized features, some consumer electronics traditionalists were nonetheless surprised when the Oticon A/S Delta digital hearing device won a Best of Innovations Design and Engineering Award at this year's International Consumer Electronics Show (Fig. 2).

Michael Barrett, clinical associate professor of medicine and cardiologist at Temple University School of Medicine and Hospital, recently reported at the annual meeting of the American College of Cardiology that doctors can improve their ability to diagnose heart problems by listening repeatedly to heartbeats on their iPods.

Previous research has shown the average rate of correct heart sound identification by physicians is 40%. In a new study, 149 general internists listened to five common heart murmurs 400 times during a 90-minute session with iPods. After the session, the average score improved to 80%.

Wireless Healthcare, a U.K.-based industry analyst, predicts the market for consumer electronics-based therapeutic and well-being devices and services will grow 20% annually and could be worth $4 billion per year by 2010. It says many of the products coming out of the CE community will be designed specifically to remotely monitor mostly aging patients and conduct online ECG analysis.

Microsoft announced last summer that it would offer software for healthcare applications. It hired 40 members of a Washington Hospital Center team—including two of the team's doctors—that developed a healthcare information system.

Greg Haubrich, a Technical Fellow at Medtronic, says several trends will lead to new wireless products for healthcare, like the development of smaller RF transceivers that consume less battery power. "There is an expanding universe of medical applications that can make beneficial use of wireless connectivity," says Haubrich.

Doctors can already keep electronic tabs on heart failure symptoms, detecting subtle increases in weight and blood pressure and summoning patients to a hospital before they're even aware that anything is wrong. Boston Scientific's Latitude patient management system, for example, enables doctors to wirelessly monitor specific information on heart patients. Several technical standards organizations are working to enable interoperability between comparable systems.

The Continua Health Alliance was formed last year as an open-industry group to establish an ecosystem of connected personal health and fitness products and services. Comprising mostly industry companies—including Cisco Systems, IBM, Intel, Medtronic, Motorola, Panasonic, Samsung Electronics, and Sharp Electronics—it's working to establish standards for personal health systems.

"We are creating an organization where several seemingly disparate industries can work together to combine their products and services through connectivity standards and provide millions of people with the tools they need to better manage their health and the health of their families," says David Whitlinger, chairman of the alliance and director of healthcare device standards at Intel.

Also last year, the Bluetooth SIG (special interest group) formed the Medical Devices Working Group to create and ratify the Bluetooth Medical Device Profile, which will expand the use of Bluetooth technology into the medical, health, and fitness markets. The completed profile is expected to run on all current versions of Bluetooth technology.

Headed by Robert Hughes, a senior wireless standards architect in Intel's Digital Health Group, the group anticipates the development of Bluetooth devices in blood pressure monitors, weight scales, pulse oximeters, glucose, pulse/heart rate monitors, and thermometers. An initial profile could be available as early as the third quarter of this year, according to Hughes.

The ISO/IEEE 11073 Personal Health Data Working Group also hopes to release a set of standards that address transport-independent application and information profiles between personal telehealth devices and monitors by the end of this year. And the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is doing its part, initiating steps to establish a new service for advanced medical radio communications (known as MedRadio) devices in the 401- to 406-MHz band.

The FCC has proposed designating an additional 2 MHz of spectrum for these devices, from 401 to 402 MHz and 405 to 406 MHz, adjacent to the existing Medical Implant Communications Service (MICS) band from 402 to 405 MHz, for a total of 5 MHz specifically assigned to medical device communications. To accommodate a wider variety of devices than the current MICS service, which is limited to the use of implant devices, the FCC also has proposed allowing the use of body-worn transmitting devices in the MedRadio service.

GPS Finds Its Way
Many analysts expect location-awareness technologies to be ubiquitous within two to five years. Advertising Age has studied this market and calls GPS "the new iPod." Riding a rush of new product introductions, sales of personal-navigation devices in the U.S. tripled in 2006 and are expected to double again in 2007. The North American GPS market is growing at about 30% annually, with the GPS Industry Council projecting sales of the devices will grow to $15 billion in 2006.

Globally, the market can only get bigger. Russia's Global Navigation Satellite System (Glonass) is expected to go global in 2009, while the European Union (EU) is spending more than $8 billion to develop its own Galileo system to compete with GPS. China has plans for a similar system called Baidu, the Chinese word for the Big Dipper.

"The portable navigation market is experiencing incredible change as wireless carriers enter the category with an advantage of using their extensive customer base to rapidly broaden portable navigation to first-time users," says Greg Corley, vice president of worldwide automotive OEM sales at ATX Group, an independent telematics service provider. "But there is also a large group of navigation-savvy consumers looking to upgrade from their first navigation device and wanting more advanced features than simple turn-by-turn directions."

There are several convergence and location technologies. Assisted-GPS, enhanced observed time difference, enhanced GPS, and other technologies in the cellular network and handset all can locate mobile users. Many of them, like radio-frequency identification (RFID), can locate and accurately track people and assets inside buildings and other locations where traditional GPS often fails.

These technologies have opened up new markets—not only to support field force and fleet management, logistics, and transportation, but also for homeland security and disaster preparedness. OEMs and chip manufacturers like Sony, Nokia, LG, Panasonic, and TI are joining the parade currently led by Garmin and Magellan.

SiRF Technology Holdings, which develops and markets semiconductor and software products for location-awareness systems using GPS, has begun working with Motorola to harmonize its location-enabling application-programming interfaces (APIs). This will make it possible for location applications to be written once and deployed across a wide range of handsets. SiRF's SiRFstudio platform will work on devices incorporating Motorola's new Location Services Framework and vice versa.

Another wrinkle is to tie GPS into the Wi-Fi network. This system, developed by Boston-based Skyhook Wireless, uses a database of about 16.5 million public and private Wi-Fi access points with GPS technology from SiRF in cities across the country to track Wi-Fi-equipped laptops and smartphones. The Wi-Fi system will find you when GPS can't, even indoors and between tall buildings, as long as the network is loaded with appropriate software.

Of course, the major wireless carriers are doing well with navigation tools. But there's one potential glitch in the growth of location-based systems—privacy. A survey by Harris Interactive shows that most U.S. mobile phone users worry about privacy when it comes to next-generation telecommunications technologies, and that includes location-based services (LBS).

Voice Tech Speaks Volumes
After years of hype, voice recognition is becoming pervasive. The speech technology market topped $1 billion in 2006, a 100% jump from just two years earlier. Most of the action is in embedded speed technology devices such as phones and auto dashboards. Worth about $125 million in 2006, this market segment is expected to quadruple to $500 million by 2010.

And there's no shortage of new applications. For example, the Magellan Maestro 4050 GPS accepts spoken demands such as "go home" and "nearest restaurant" (Fig. 3). That's a first for turn-by-turn navigation systems.

Google is seriously interested in the technology. With its free Google Voice Local Search, users can dial a number (800-GOOG-411) to search business listings in specific cities just by following spoken requests. Not to be left behind, Yahoo may soon adopt voice technology to help it sell ads on mobile phones.

Microsoft's Vista operating system features voice technology. TellMe Networks, which Microsoft is acquiring, has launched a free service that lets people get direct listings on their phone by voice or text messages. Call 800-555TELLME and say "business search" to find a business listing or search for a particular category, such as "flower shops," from any phone. A map comes with the selected listing. The system also includes a text and mobile service, which can be downloaded from a mobile phone at www.tellme.com or http://m.tellme.com.

Vox, another voice tech vendor, routes calls for TiVo and British Airways. U.S. troops use the company's VoxTec system to translate simple Iraqi phrases. Much of the growing interest in such technology is a result of its vastly improved accuracy. And like most technical developments, voice tech systems have become much more integrated. Systems that used to require a box will now fit into a device the size of a credit card.

Low-Cost Mobility
Technology isn't cheap, but it's getting cheaper—particularly for handsets and laptops, where leading vendors are competing for market share in developing countries and other emerging markets where price has always been an issue. The low-cost trend has pushed General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) handsets into the hot growth category, where many analysts believe it will remain for at least the next two to three years. Most industry analysts are projecting that GPRS cell phones will remain the largest mobile phone segment into 2010.

Most of these low-end models are going to developing countries. Yet the nonprofit One Laptop Per Child project, which aims to deliver low-priced laptops to the world's poorest children, has announced plans to sell versions of these models in the U.S. "We can't ignore the United States. We are looking at it very seriously," says Nicholas Negroponte, the former head of the MIT Media Lab and founder of the project.

Sony Ericsson will offer low-cost color-screen and music-playing mobile handsets made in India through manufacturing agreements with Flextronics and Foxconn. The company's production in India could reach 10 million phones, or about 13% of all Sony Ericsson phones sold in 2006. In addition to low prices, Sony Ericsson says these phones will offer features targeted at the Indian market, such as local content and customized keypads.

Agere Systems' TrueNTRY X122 is a low-cost cellular phone platform that combines chips, software, and a development kit while meeting the GPRS standard (Fig. 4). It can also deliver CD music, camera/camcorder functions, and Internet access for a bill of materials (BOM) of less than $30.

Laptop manufacturers have found ways to cut costs in key components, such as displays and data storage, with a stripped down Web browser, simple mechanisms for recharging, and the free Linux operating system. The result is a $176 Third World Laptop. And, the cost of manufacturing these laptops could drop to $100 or less by the end of 2008.

TAGS: Microchip
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