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Samsung detailed plans to create an open platform for developing sensors for wearables and a cloud service aimed at tracking a person’s health in real time at an event held in San Francisco Wednesday. The initiative will start with a modular wristband reference design called Simband that tracks heart rate and blood pressure, but could expand into other devices and locations on the body. The idea is to let developers play with the components in hopes of driving adoption of the platform.
Young Sohn, a Samsung executive, explained that the Simband would contain a variety of sensors (it sounds like one might pick and choose the sensors) and a corresponding cloud platform, dubbed SAMI that holds a person’s health data and keeps it safe. Samsung launched this vision with a partnership with UCSF and IMEC, a European nanotech and chip research consortium.
The high-minded idea is to take advantage of better sensor technology and data processing to help people understand exactly what’s happening with their body at any point in the day. The more practical focus of the project relies on the increasing number of aging citizens in many first-world countries tied to the amount those countries are spending on healthcare. How can Samsung — and tech firms — get a piece of that pie? Tech firms have seen this as an area of opportunity for over a decade, but with smaller sensors, mobile connectivity and the cloud, fielding a consumer-friendly technology monitoring solution is both easier and cheaper.
The wristband has several bells and whistles, such as a “shuttle battery” that attaches to the device via a magnet and charges the device while you sleep. The point is you can charge it without taking it off. An EKG sensor that measures heart rate and detects blood pressure is included, with more sensors to come. Samsung is hoping that the open approach helps it get new sensors on board. The wristband also has Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, so it can have instant access to the cloud.
As for that cloud, Samsung calls it SAMI and aims to let people use it as a place to control and grant access to their data from a variety of sensors — and possibly even medical records. The idea is that all your data goes in and then it can come out via access to APIs. Access to SAMI APIs will be rolled out by the end of this year. Samsung showed off a partnership with a company called TicTrac that could help people understand how they are living, not just from their physical metrics, but based on their sleep, nutrition and time spent with family and friends.
Samsung also announced a $50 million digital health challenge that will focus on development of new and better sensors, new technology and algorithms associated with digital health and to build out a healthcare ecosystem that includes sensor data. I still have tons of questions about this platform, like what the ideal channel would be for getting any kind of sensor-filled tracker to the consumer would be.
A Samsung spokesperson told my colleague Janko Roettgers, who is at the event, that it would be aimed at the consumer market with a price point to match. The price is still being determined. Yet, the common wisdom in this sector is that people who most need to monitor their health are not buying personal fitness trackers, so a doctor writing a prescription or a health insurer trying to push a device to their customers might be a better way to broaden adoption by those who could most use a device that can preventively track health issues.
The existing business models associated with healthcare are already complicated, confusing and incentivize illogical behavior on behalf of both consumers and doctors. Adding in the monitoring of a patient’s data or even access to that data creates entirely new ways to make money and push doctors and consumers to behave differently. While the demonstrations showed beneficial outcomes, such as discerning when someone is likely to have a heart attack, the flip side of an insurance firm dropping or charging riskier patients more is equally possible.
Samsung also didn’t cover federal approvals in great depth, and told Roettgers that it is not seeking FDA approval, so it’s unclear how or when this reference design could even be used by doctors for assessing patient health. And it’s clear that to really break open the healthcare market, these devices and their algorithms will need some kind of scientific review to ensure accuracy and efficacy.
Still ever since I saw Paul Otellini, who was then the CEO of Intel onstage at the World Congress on Technology in 2005, talking about the future of medicine and technology, I’ve been waiting for the technology and medical establishment to move beyond staged demonstrations into the real world. We’re not there yet, but we are getting closer. And with a focus on openness, partners and user control of their own data, Samsung has many of the ingredients needed to make both consumers and the scientific community willing to invest in this vision. But the devil will be in the details.