2/2015

Sensor, sensor on the wall, who’s the healthiest of us all?

Self-tracking using wearable and portable health sensors is quickly becoming a worldwide phenomenon. Professor Ilkka Korhonen is one of a growing number of devotees who regularly monitor their personal health metrics.

Ilkka Korhonen

 

“If you regularly measure your heart rate and activity levels, you gain valuable insights that can help you improve your health and well-being,” says Professor Ilkka Korhonen from the Department of Signal Processing at TUT.

 

“I always wear an optical heart rate monitor on my wrist while running, skiing or playing baseball to track my heart rate and activity levels. I occasionally check my pulse at work. The data allows me to keep tabs on my stress levels, post-workout recovery and overall well-being. I no longer weigh myself on a daily basis, but I kept a step counter in my pocket on a recent hiking trip,” says Professor Ilkka Korhonen from the Department of Signal Processing at TUT.

Korhonen became interested in medical technology while pursuing a master’s degree in engineering. Intrigued by the human aspects of science, he ended up exploring sensor-based health monitoring first at the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland and later at Nokia.

“I’ve immersed myself wholeheartedly in the research I started back in 1995.”

Well-being is the ultimate goal

The 1970s saw the introduction of the first electronic devices for measuring human health, but the first patent for a step counter dates back to 1905. The community of self-trackers has since grown into the Quantified Self movement.

“The core principle of personal health informatics is that people have a personal interest in monitoring their health indicators. The goal is to promote well-being, health and personal fulfilment,” Korhonen says.

The development of wearable sensors and related measurement devices is a hot research topic and one in which TUT is strongly involved. According to Korhonen, researchers are racing to develop smaller and more accurate wearable measurement systems that combine convenience and customized functions with an eye-catching design.

WHO? Ilkka Korhonen, 47 years

  • Education: Graduated with a master’s degree in technology from TUT in 1991. Completed a doctorate at TUT in 1998.
  • Professorship: Professor of Signal Processing at TUT from 2011 to August 2015. Adjunct Professor of Personal Health Informatics since September 2015.
  • Business activities: One of the co-founders of PulseOn, which was established in 2012 to develop an optical heart rate monitor. Employed by PulseOn on a full-time basis as of September 2015. PulseOn with offices in Espoo, Finland, and Switzerland is Nokia’s spin-off company.
  • Area of expertise: Individuals and citizens as users of health information and technologies from different perspectives.
  • Family: Wife and a blended family of five children aged 4 to 17. 
 

Interpretation and analysis of big data

The continuous measurement of various health metrics generates huge volumes of data. The interpretation of this big data is a massive undertaking.

“My Personal Health Informatics Research Group at TUT focuses on gathering and analysing big data. Our research data, which we’ve collected over several years, contains the health metrics of tens of thousands of people,” Korhonen describes.

“For example, we’ve analysed the heart rate variability of 30,000 individuals to shed light on the typical circadian patterns of physical activity and energy intake among working-age Finns and to determine how and why these patterns change throughout the week and depending on the season. We also know how the patterns differ between men and women and how people’s fitness level and weight affect their results.”

The Digital Health Revolution Project explores indirect methods for collecting data on people’s exercise routines, diets, sleep patterns and other lifestyle behaviours. This is done by tracing the digital footprint that people leave behind on the Internet, as it reflects their consumer habits and other everyday choices.

Sensors help manage chronic diseases

Heart rate monitors and activity trackers are gaining widespread popularity not only among fitness enthusiasts but across all demographics.

Korhonen predicts that health sensors designed for the consumer market will find their way into the healthcare sector in the future. The sensors can be used to identify health risks and prevent, treat and monitor chronic diseases.

“Activity trackers are already helping people with diabetes monitor their health in the USA and Europe.”

Quantified Self movement

The Quantified Self movement arose in California out of a need to track individual daily behaviour to better understand and improve one’s health. A wide range of devices and applications are available for monitoring and analysing vital signs, activity levels, sleep quality and diet.

As emotions affect our physiology and vice versa, emotional self-quantification, or mood tracking, has also become popular. Parents worried about their baby’s development have established Quantified Baby groups.

Quantified Self Conferences are held in the USA and Europe. They provide a forum for committed self-trackers to share their experiences and compare notes.

 

Text: Leena Koskenlaakso
Photo: Mika Kanerva

 
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