MIT-Developed Video Software Can Detect Your Pulse Through Your Laptop Camera

By Chelsea Whyte on June 25, 2012 11:43 PM EDT

radial pulse
This pulse-measuring method may be on its way out. MIT researchers have developed video software that can detect a pulse through a low-resolution camera like a laptop webcam. (Photo: Creative Commons)

Someday soon, you might be able do your annual physical checkup through your computer's webcam. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are developing software that can check a person's vital signs through an ordinary low-resolution camera.

Graduate student Ming-Zher Poh, who won the third place prize of $50,000 in the Primary Healthcare competition run by the Center for Integration of Medicine and Innovative Technology, has shown that the system can reliably gather accurate pulse measurements. He's now working to expand its use to measure respiration and blood-oxygen levels.

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The system measures slight variations in brightness produced by blood flowing in and out of blood vessels in the body. In tests, the pulse data from the webcam software was compared with pulses determined by an FDA-approved bloom-volume pulse sensor. The imaging system produced pulse rates that agreed to within about 3 beats per minute with the rates from the approved monitoring device.

The results held valid even when the subject moved slightly in front of the camera. The following video shows how the process works.

"We started from amplifying color, and we noticed that we'd get this nice effect, that motion is also amplified," researcher Michael Rubinstein told The Verge. He envisions it being used for "contactless monitoring" of patients, particularly infants where "their bodies are so fragile, you want to attach as few sensors as possible." 

Poh said he sees the technology being used for 'telemedecine' screening tests over the internet using a laptop camera or even someone's cell-phone to transmit data to health professionals.

Such a system could also be built into a bathroom mirror so that patients who need ongoing monitoring, or just people who want to keep track of their own health, could get pulse, respiration, oxygen saturation and blood-pressure readings routinely while they brush their teeth or wash up, displayed in a corner of the mirror, according to the MIT News Office.

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