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Google’s Verily Unveils a Health Watch for Research

The watch collects your heart rate and rhythms, but it only tells you the time and date.
Verily’s “Study Watch” is a health tracker designed for medical research.

Verily Life Sciences, the health spinout of search giant Google, unveiled a health tracking watch that it plans to deploy in large-scale medical studies.

The gadget, known simply as “Study Watch,” looks like an ordinary wrist watch and has a low-power e-ink type display.

With the watch, Verily says it now has a way to unobtrusively, but continuously, collect physiological data from volunteers. According to Verily, the gadget collects heart rate, electrocardiograms, movement data, as well as a measure of the electrical conductance of the skin. It also detects ambient light and sound.

The watch isn’t for sale. Instead, it an “investigational device” that will be used in clinical studies, including “Baseline,”  Verily’s long-planned effort to discover biomarkers by tracking thousands of healthy people, including as they become ill.

Verily is not currently seeking FDA clearance to market the watch as a medical device. “In the future, we plan to incorporate Study Watch in a broad array of health applications,” the company said in a blog post.

MIT Technology Review first spotted a version of the Googly watch in September on the wrist of Brian Otis, Verily’s chief technical officer, who described it as an effort to make a more practical tracker.

Verily, in its blog post, says although there are already many wearables on the market that the subsidiary had “a specific need outside of these offerings: namely, the scalable collection of rich and complex data sets across clinical and observational studies.”

The problem with most wearables is that people don’t always wear them, especially bulky watches. And a tracking watch left on the dresser at home is useless. To make it user-friendly, Verily said the watch’s battery will last up to a week without a charge and it will be able to store raw data produced over the same amount of time, so it doesn’t have to be synched as frequently.

The watch has a processor that can manage and encrypt a wearer’s data and its software can be updated “over-the-air,” Verily said.

The biggest technical novelty in the Study Watch appears to be its ability to collect an ECG, or electrocardiogram, which can reveal heart abnormalities. Such measurements are taken in hospitals by covering a person with a dozen glue-on electrodes. But it’s also possible to pick up a lower-resolution signal from just two electrical contacts. With this watch, that apparently happens when the user grips the metal bezel with his or her other hand.

Tech companies are not widely trusted to manage health data and their efforts at consumer health products or apps have mostly tanked, or proved of little interest. Instead, they’re learning that participating in research and winning over experts to act as trusted intermediaries is a better starting point.

Beginning in 2015, for instance, Apple released frameworks for the iPhone that researchers can use to run research studies over the phone and later encouraged hospitals to start writing health-tracking apps as well. The Cupertino company’s Apple Watch also measures heart rate and executives have sometimes touted cases where users were tipped off to health emergencies by unusual readings. But so far, neither Apple nor any other company has been ready to say a watch can diagnose any disease.

In Verily’s case, the watch doesn’t even let users see their health data. The only data a user sees from Google’s watch is the date, time, and some instructions.

Verily has announced wide-ranging health plans. It has teamed with partners to develop glucose sensors, self-adjusting contact lenses, bio-electronic devices, and even has a sideline in mosquito control. What most of these efforts have in common is the use of ultra-small electronics and large-scale data collection, a combination which Verily sees as its angle on health care. 

With Study Watch, Verily says its objective is to deploy a “highly scalable” tool that can be used in population studies, in which thousands of people might participate. 

The company says the watch will be used in the Personalized Parkinson’s Project, a two-year study to track the progression of that disease among patients in the Netherlands. It will also be employed in its planned Baseline study, which is an attempt to closely track 10,000 to 20,000 initially healthy people over time.

Bastiaan Bloem, a neurologist who directs the Parkinson Center at Radboud University Medical Center, in the Netherlands, says the Parkinson study, to begin in June, will follow 650 volunteers with an “everything you can measure” approach, including brain scans and blood tests.

The watch is “an exciting way to track people 24 hours in their homes” including how badly or well people sleep, he says. No one has obtained detailed long-term sleep or heart readings on this many Parkinson’s patients before. “We know one of the early symptoms in Parkinson’s is heart rate variability. But we only measure it in the hospital,” he says. “And sleep is something you just can’t grasp in the hospital at all.”

Verily is contributing 650 watches and cash to the $13 million study, which is also supported by Dutch government funds. Bloem says all the data will be freely available but “Verily will have a crack at the data to build algorithms.”  

Bloem expects the data will permit classification of Parkinson’s patients into sub-types who might benefit from different treatments. “We hope to get fine-grained phenotype—people like you, a 50 year old man with red hair, will have this or that outcome, but only if you exercise,” he says.

Bloem says patients who tested prototypes of the watch said they’d be willing to keep it on, including because its looks so completely ordinary. “We work with a lot of wearables, but this one stick outs in terms of user friendliness and the look,” he says.


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