Quarter-Sized Sensor Image
The lightweight, quarter-sized sensor uses a tiny magnet to attach to any N95, cloth, or surgical face mask. (Credit: Northwestern)

Engineers have developed a new smart sensor platform for face masks that they are calling a “Fitbit for the face.” Dubbed “FaceBit,” the lightweight, quarter-sized sensor uses a tiny magnet to attach to any N95, cloth, or surgical face mask.

Not only can it sense the user’s real-time respiration rate, heart rate, and mask wear time, it also may be able to replace cumbersome tests by measuring mask fit. All this information is then wirelessly transmitted to a smartphone app, which contains a dashboard for real-time health monitoring. The app can immediately alert the user when issues — such as elevated heart rate or a leak in the mask — unexpectedly arise. The physiological data also could be used to predict fatigue, physical health status and emotional state.

Although a tiny battery powers the device, FaceBit is designed to harvest energy from any variety of ambient sources — including the force of the user’s breathing, motion and heat from a user’s breath as well as from the sun. This extends the sensor’s battery life, lengthening time between charges.

Because stressful events can elicit physiological responses, including rapid breathing, FaceBit can use that information to alert the user to take a break, go for a walk or take some deep breaths to calm down. Hospital systems also could use this data to optimize shift and break schedules for its workers. And because heart rate and respiration rate are so tightly entangled with each other, having the ability to effortlessly monitor both could open new research possibilities.

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