COVID-19: Wearable goes from tracking activity to tracking a virus

Oura Ring wearable health tech
The Oura Ring is packed with infrared LEDs, NTC temperature sensors, an accelerometer, and a gyroscope integrated into a 25oz ring-shaped device designed to be worn on a finger.

Like a lot of new and innovative wearable technologies, the Oura Ring got its start through a Kickstarter campaign in 2015. Tiny enough to slip onto a finger, the ring-shaped device by the wearable health tech company Oura Health earned the CES Best of Innovation Award, for its ability to measure sleep as well as capture body measurements like heart rate, HRV, temperature and more. It also snagged a Red Dot award in 2018 for Product Design in jewelry.

Now, the Oura Ring is the centerpiece of a research study at UCLA to track viruses. Called TemPredict, the goal of the study is to identify patterns from the physiological data and build an algorithm to predict the onset, progression, and recovery of future COVID-19 cases.

The Oura Health--sponsored project with UCSF was pioneered by Dr. Ashley Mason, a researcher and director of the UCSF Osher Center Sleep Group. Dr. Mason had been using the Oura Ring in research for depression. When that study was shut down due to the coronavirus, she proposed using the ring to detect early onset of the virus.

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Tiny, but mighty

Three Finnish engineers--Kari Kivela, Markku Koskela and Petteri Lahtela--initially formed the health tech company Oura Health in 2013 to develop the novel wearable device and test prototypes.

The Oura Ring is packed with infrared LEDs, NTC temperature sensors, an accelerometer, and a gyroscope integrated into a 25oz ring-shaped device designed to be worn on a finger.

According to its inventors, when the Oura Ring was first created, most wearables at the time were not focused on measuring sleep. “One of the biggest challenges was that we needed to develop a custom hardware solution that addressed sleeping habits in an accurate, informative and actionable way,” a company spokesperson explained in an email to FierceElectronics.

“Oura delivers precise personal insights designed to guide and enhance sleep, health and recovery habit,” he continued.  “It uses a ring form factor designed for optimal accuracy, as the pulse signal on the finger is 100x stronger than on the wrist. It has been validated against the gold standard sleep laboratory test (PSG) and against the ECG for its heart rate variability data.”

The UCSF study launched in March 2020. Initially, more than 2,000 front-line healthcare workers at UCSF campuses were given rings in order to easily track changes in their body temperature, respiratory rate, and heart rate. In Phase 2, the study will be opened up to Oura Ring users. 

The company said that it currently has over 150,000 users who are eligible to participate in the study and that approximately 40,000 users have enrolled at this time.

Unlike other wearables, Oura’s sensor is located on the finger which provides a stronger pulse signal than the wrist, resulting in samples that are up to 100x faster than other wrist-based wearables.

Researchers will be able to use the information gathered from all participants (UCSF workers and Oura users) to identify patterns and build an algorithm that could predict onset, progression, and recovery in future cases of COVID-19. If this approach is successful and the physiological data collected by the Oura Ring is able to predict illness symptoms, it could open the door for research into tracking and managing other illnesses and conditions.

Oura Health also has a partnership with WVU’s Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute (RNI) that dates back over a year. RNI has been using the Oura Ring in research for addiction, chronic pain, and aging. Through testing various wearables on the market, said Oura, the team at RNI found the Oura Ring to be unparalleled in accuracy and form factor. When the coronavirus hit, RNI was able to rapidly deploy the framework it had developed for researching COVID-19.

On April 8, 2020, the RNI and West Virginia University Medicine announced a new study with Oura Health. The study will monitor 1,000 front-line healthcare professionals with the goal of developing an AI-driven predictive model. This study will integrate physiologic measures with psychological, cognitive and behavioral biometrics like stress and anxiety to track the mind-body connection in the context of asymptomatic infection.

Dr. Ali Rezai, executive chair of the WVU Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute, said in a press release “Our AI-driven models are currently predicting symptoms 24 hours prior to onset, and we are working toward a three-plus day forecast. This forecasting capability will help us get ahead of this pandemic; limit the spread to protect healthcare workers, their families, and our communities; and improve our understanding of health recovery.” 

Oura Health anticipates that initial results from these studies will be available in the coming weeks.

As for future developments or product enhancements, Oura Health says that while it does not generally comment on unannounced products, it does have plans to build off the momentum of the UCSF and RNI studies to help the world better detect and recover from illnesses of all kinds.

RELATED: Wearable device changes temperature to hide wearer's body heat

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