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Singapore startup develops app that reads vital signs via phone’s camera

Hold your phone to your face for about a minute and it would be able to tell your heart rate, oxygen saturation, respiration rate and stress level with medical grade accuracy. That is what Singapore health startup Nervotec is promising with its application, which detects a user’s vital signs by studying the way light reflects off a user’s face changes as blood flows through the capillaries under the skin.

Singapore startup develops app that reads vital signs via phone’s camera

Nervotec founder Jonathan Lau with his firm’s Awareness mobile application, which can measure a user’s heart rate and oxygen saturation with just a front-facing camera.

  • Nervotec’s app studies the way light reflects off the face to detect vital signs
  • Its founder believes the app could complement Covid-19 temperature screenings
  • The team is now trying to get the app certified by the United States Food and Drug Administration

 

SINGAPORE — Hold your phone to your face for about a minute and it would be able to tell your heart rate, oxygen saturation, respiration rate and stress level with medical grade accuracy.

That is what Singapore health startup Nervotec is promising with its application, which detects a user’s vital signs by studying the way light reflects off a user’s face changes as blood flows through the capillaries under the skin.  

The mobile application, which works on almost any smartphone with a front-facing camera, then feeds the data through an artificial intelligence engine to calculate an overall health score, which the app presents together with the individual readings for the user’s vital signs.

A poor health score could indicate sickness, excessive levels of stress or possibly even a Covid-19 infection. 

That is because some Covid-19 patients have been known to exhibit a condition called silent hypoxia, when oxygen levels drop so slowly that patients do not notice it.

Nervotec’s founder Jonathan Lau said the firm’s technology can complement the temperature screening that is being done at public places and offices.

After all, having a fever is just one symptom of Covid-19, he said. 

“We’re creating additional layers, without (causing) inconvenience, to make sure that the individual, with a certain level of confidence, is okay to mingle (with others) or at least come out of the house.”

ACCURACY ‘WELL-WITHIN’ FDA STANDARDS

According to Mr Lau, the app is able to accurately tell a person’s heart rate within two beats per minute and oxygen saturation  — amount of oxygen in the bloodstream — within two percentage points. 

The app, however, does not work well when an artificial light source such as a lamp is in the frame of the camera as the high-speed flickering of a light bulb interferes with the reading.

When this reporter tried out the application, the results given by the app did not stray beyond that range when compared to a reading from a pulse oximeter clipped on the finger that measured heart rate and oxygen saturation. 

The app’s accuracy, Mr Lau said, is “well within” the required range to receive approval from the United States Food and Drug Administration for medical use, which the team is aiming to get within the next year and a half.

When that happens, the app would be able to get fast-tracked approval from Singapore’s Health Sciences Authority for use here, he added.

Dr Ian Mathews, a medical consultant to the team, said that such technology could help reduce crowds at hospitals. 

“In this time of the pandemic, remote monitoring (of vitals) allows clinicians to still provide quality care to patients while keeping the risk of transmissible diseases to a minimum,” said Dr Mathews, who is an emergency physician.

The 25-man team at Nervotec is working on an update to allow users to take their readings even with a face mask on.

It is also working towards getting its app used for telemedicine services in the future.

A Mighty Jaxx employee comparing his vital sign reading taken by the application with a reading from a fingertip pulse oximeter.   Photo: Daryl Choo / TODAY

HOW IT BEGAN

The idea for the app was sown six years ago when Mr Lau, a former Republic of Singapore Air Force fighter pilot, was attending an air crash investigation course in New Mexico in the United States.  

He was bugged by what he felt was a huge disparity between the number of safety checks an aircraft had to go through and the screening a pilot had to undergo before a flight.

“The supervisors call it an ‘eyeball check’. Basically they look into your eyes and say, ‘Okay, you look good’,” said the 36-year-old.

“Can you imagine? The aircraft just had 250 test points and here is a supervisor giving you an eyeball check. It didn’t sit well with me.” 

He left the Air Force in 2019 and started work on the app before registering his company in June 2020.

With the app, Mr Lau’s team won the Singapore Airlines AppChallenge 2020 in October, a competition where startups pitch solutions to challenges faced by the aviation sector and allows them the opportunity to work with the national carrier.

Nervotec’s development is being supported by the Infocomm Media Development Authority through the Open Innovation Platform, a programme that matches businesses with solution providers.  

Nervotec is also a member of the Singapore Health Technologies Consortium, which was launched in 2019 by the National Research Foundation to match industry partners with academics at research institutes and institutions of higher learning.

MONITORING EMPLOYEE WELL-BEING

Currently, Nervotec’s app is commercially available but is sold through a business-to-business model and is not available for public users. 

Local toymaker Mighty Jaxx has been trialing the app by having its employees take a reading of their vitals before they leave home for work. 

In the first two weeks of testing the app, it managed to flag out an employee who was in poor health but insisted on returning to the office for a photoshoot. 

His supervisors stepped in and got him to rest and see a doctor, who diagnosed him with the flu.

Several large corporations in the services and construction industry in Singapore, which Nervotec does not yet have permission to name, have also begun using the application to track their employees’ health.

With more employees working from home since the pandemic, apps like this can also help employers better monitor the physical and mental wellbeing of their staff, Mighty Jaxx’s chief operations officer Melissa Wong said.

“I don’t see that as very invasive, I think people actually want us to know how they are feeling,” she said. “Sometimes employees won’t dare to voice out that they are not feeling well... so having that data is an extra push factor.”

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