Tech allows researchers to detect heart rate via webcam

A pair of researchers at Utah State University are aiming to revolutionize the world of digital monitoring with a new technology that can measure a person’s heartbeat using nothing more than a video camera and specialized software, the university announced Monday.

Electrical engineering professor Jake Gunther, PhD, and former student Nate Ruben paired to create the novel, USU-patented heart rate technology, according to a university release, and have expanded their research to create the company Photorithm Inc. Photorithm’s flagship product, a baby monitoring system known as Smartbeat, is currently in beta testing.

“You can now check your heart rate using a webcam,” the Photorithm Facebook page states. “No cables, no chest straps, no Fitbits. This elegant way of measuring vital signs leaves even Harry Potter scratching his head.”

Gunter and Ruben’s technology relies on two major players: a working video camera and specialized software. The system works similarly to a pulse oximeter, Ruben said in the release, but instead of looking at the light transmitted through skin tissue, they focus on the light being reflected from it.

“When your heart circulates blood through your arteries and veins, the light absorbed by your skin changes by measurable amounts,” Gunther said. “You can’t see it with the naked eye, but when our system processes the images from a camera, the changes are obvious.”

Video cameras record images in values of red, blue and green, he said. Hemoglobin has an absorption peak for green light, so when the heart pushes blood into arteries near the skin’s surface, more green light is absorbed and less is reflected.

“This means we see fewer green values in the images from the camera,” Gunther explained.

Ruben was experimenting with similar software in 2012, when his first child was born four weeks premature. According to the Smartbeat site, the baby was at high risk for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, pushing Ruben’s wife to get up five or six times during the night to check on her child’s breathing.

“An electrical engineering student at the time, I knew there had to be a better way,” he wrote. “This became my senior project, and later my master’s thesis.”

Smartbeat claims to track movements “so subtle they can’t be seen by the human eye” and alerts parents when it detects anything abnormal. The device lacks any cords or wires, and backups make it easy to share the tracking information with a physician.

The tech will be a game-changer, the co-inventors said in the USU release.

“We’ve done this,” Gunter said. “We’ve pulled it off.”