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Samsung Reveals an Open Wearable Health Tracker

Samsung’s wrist-worn Simband prototype could be the basis for a new wave of personal health tracking devices.

Creating wearable technology is tricky. It has to look and feel good, and be useful enough for you to want to keep it on your body all day. That’s difficult enough if you’re designing a simple activity monitor that tracks steps and calories burned. But it gets much harder if you want to do things like measure and display vital signs–something that’s very challenging to do accurately with, say, a gadget on your wrist.

Samsung vice president of digital health Ram Fish shows off the company’s Simband, a conceptual model for a health-tracking wristband, at an event in San Francisco on Wednesday.

Still, that is the next logical step when it comes to fitness and health tracking and today Samsung showed off what it envisions this looking like on your wrist: a gadget called the Simband that can track biometrics like heart rate and temperature.

Pulling up his shirt sleeve to reveal the Simband’s black body and shiny, square face, Samsung vice president of digital health Ram Fish seemed excited as he stood before a crowd at an event for media and company partners in San Francisco. The display showed several of his vital signs being tracked live, such as temperature and heart rate (at 87 beats per minute, respectable under the circumstances). He flipped to other screens that showed that his heart rate variability and other data was also being logged.

The device looked pretty cool, but what’s under the hood is even neater. The Simband is built using a modular, open sensor platform that Samsung plans to make available for other companies to customize and integrate with their own sensor technologies. Developed with Belgian microelectronics research center IMEC, it can do things like measure your pulse, blood oxygen levels, and hydration, and includes Wi-Fi and Bluetooth as well. Devices built on that platform will be able to feed data to other apps, gadgets and services via an online service called SAMI, for Samsung Architecture Multimodal Interactions.

Samsung has a partnership with the University of California at San Francisco to explore what this technology can offer. Michael Blum, UCSF’s chief medical information officer and associate vice chancellor for informatics, said that a joint lab will be study the devices, the algorithms behind them, and their impacts. Hopefully this will lead to increasingly accurate biometrics. This open, wide-angle approach to wearable tech sounds promising. It could get more startups experimenting with wearable devices and apps, which may convince more users to try them.

Samsung also announced a new strategy for dealing with the problem of how to extend the limited battery life of small, wearable devices. Typically, users have to recharge activity tracking bands after several days or a week of use by plugging them in. Ideally, you’d never have to take your tracker off, so it could get as accurate a measure of your life as possible. Samsung figured out an interesting way to make this happen: it developed an extra battery pack that clips onto the Simband with magnets and allows you to charge its built in battery without taking the device off. Samsung figures you might do this while sleeping, which would make sense if it’s not that heavy or bulky.

It’s not clear when products containing the sensor board and/or using SAMI will come to market, but Samsung said it plans to offer beta versions of the Simband API and SAMI SDK later this year.

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