How a Medical Stress Sensor Evolved Into a Beautiful Wearable for All

By Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan on at

Seven years ago, an MIT professor named Rosalind Picard developed a wristband called iCalm to help autistic kids manage stress by monitoring electrical activity on the skin. Today, Picard and her team want to put their device in your hands. What happened in between is a fascinating story about the role of accidental discoveries in science and design.

Embrace, as the current iteration of Picard's wearable is called, recently launched on IndieGoGo and is already close to meeting its goal. The simple-looking wristband isn't quite a watch, since it had no screen or interface, but is really akin to a fitness tracker that does something more. Its medical-grade internals, which can measure everything from sleep to activity, also include a sensor that measures something called electrodermal activity.

How a Medical Stress Sensor Evolved Into a Beautiful Wearable For All

That means Embrace detects moisture — or sweat — on your skin in infinitesimal amounts, making it possible to measure small changes in what Embrace's creators describe as the fight-or-flight response. (As it turns out, EDA is also quite good at predicting epileptic seizures. But more on that in a second.)

The device will be able to see when and where your stress levels spiked during the day, and set up alerts if you want a notification that your stress is climbing. If you pass that point, Embrace will vibrate to let you know. It's also a quite beautiful little wristband, with a flat leather or fabric band and a simple, brushed metal face. And its battery? It'll last for "weeks."

How a Medical Stress Sensor Evolved Into a Beautiful Wearable For All

An Accidental Discovery

So, how did Picard's 2007 sensor study evolved into a fully fledged business with a flagship wearable? Well, iCalm started out as a way to measure emotions. Specifically, the team at MIT were testing how it could help sufferers of autism manage their stress levels and detect super-stressful events. Picard is a leader in "affective computing," which is exactly what is sounds like: the study of human affect, or emotion, through computing. But entirely by accident, Picard realised her sensor could do even more than that.

In a post about the discovery, she describes how a student gave two of the wristbands to his brother, who has autism. As Picard was monitoring the day's activity, she noticed a massive spike on only one side of the body. She called up the student and asked if something had happened at that point in the day, suspecting a glitch with the device. In fact, the child had suffered a seizure 20 minutes after the spike in EDA on one wrist.

How a Medical Stress Sensor Evolved Into a Beautiful Wearable For All

Even more importantly, the device could measure something called "brain wave suppression," when brain waves dangerously flatten out after a major seizure. "Usually you need to wear an EEG in order to detect this kind of brain wave suppression," Picard writes. "Wearing an EEG is not convenient, not comfortable, and not stylish except maybe at MIT parties." Instead, their little EDA sensor could do the same job.

They had made a huge discovery, entirely by accident. "Who would have ever expected that we would find so much important information about the brain, while reading 'emotion' data from the wrist?," Picard concluded.

So Picard and her collaborators got to work on the next iteration of the device: Q Sensor, which was aimed at detecting seizures through EDA, and could also track movement. In a study published in Epilepsia in 2012, they reported that the sensor predicted 94 percent of seizures in children wearing the device. Meanwhile, a Nature paper from this year describes how Picard and her business partner, the Italian sensor company Empatica, are planning clinical trials for the next general of the device next year.

From iCalm to Embrace

Which brings us to Embrace. On IndieGoGo, the design team explains that Embrace is the result of many requests for a version of Picard's sensor that anyone could use, from families who want to know when seizures are happening, to parents of autistic children who want to simply monitor stress, the original purpose of Picard's work.

And then there's the huge sea of consumers who don't have a medical use for the sensor, but who are interested in the burgeoning practice of life quantification. "Clearly, we could be serving a greater need than science; many people could benefit from having the data that this sensor provides," the Embrace team writes.

How a Medical Stress Sensor Evolved Into a Beautiful Wearable For All

It's fascinating to trace the lifespan of a device like Embrace, which was born nearly a decade ago, to its current existence as a pseudo-consumer product. In fact, iCalm and IndieGoGo were founded the same year. Of course, this comes with all the usual caveats about crowdfunding — this is flex-funding, after all which means no money back if the project fails to make its goal — but if you're willing to take a risk you can check out Embrace here. The team at Empatica will donate one Embrace to a kid with epilepsy for each of the first 4,000 backers. [IndieGoGo]