As society struggles with the privacy implications of wearable computers like Google Glass, scientists, researchers and some start-ups are already preparing the next, even more intrusive wave of computing: ingestible computers and minuscule sensors stuffed inside pills.
Although these tiny devices are not yet mainstream, some people on the cutting edge are already swallowing them to monitor a range of health data and wirelessly share this information with a doctor. And there are prototypes of tiny, ingestible devices that can do things like automatically open car doors or fill in passwords.
For people in extreme professions, like space travel, various versions of these pills have been used for some time. But in the next year, your family doctor — at least if he’s technologically adept — could also have them in his medicinal tool kit.
“You will — voluntarily, I might add — take a pill, which you think of as a pill but is in fact a microscopic robot, which will monitor your systems” and wirelessly transmit what is happening, Eric E. Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, said last fall at a company conference. “If it makes the difference between health and death, you’re going to want this thing.”
One of the pills, made by Proteus Digital Health, a small company in Redwood City, Calif., does not need a battery. Instead, the body is the power source. Just as a potato can power a light bulb, Proteus has added magnesium and copper on each side of its tiny sensor, which generates just enough electricity from stomach acids.
As a Proteus pill hits the bottom of the stomach, it sends information to a cellphone app through a patch worn on the body. The tiny computer can track medication-taking behaviors — “did Grandma take her pills today, and what time?” — and monitor how a patient’s body is responding to medicine. It also detects the person’s movements and rest patterns.
A pill called the CorTemp Ingestible Core Body Temperature Sensor, made by HQ Inc. in Palmetto, Fla., has a built-in battery and wirelessly transmits real-time body temperature as it travels through a patient.
Firefighters, football players, soldiers and astronauts have used the device so their employers can monitor them and ensure they do not overheat in high temperatures. CorTemp began in 2006 as a research collaboration from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Lee Carbonelli, HQ’s marketing director, said the company hoped, in the next year, to have a consumer version that would wirelessly communicate to a smartphone app.
Future generations of these pills could even be convenience tools.
Last month, Regina Dugan, senior vice president for Motorola Mobility’s advanced technology and projects group, showed off an example, along with wearable radio frequency identification tattoos that attach to the skin like a sticker, at the D: All Things Digital technology conference.