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Xerox develops webcam that can check your pulse

| Sunday, April 7, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

You may have used a webcam on your computer to make a video call. Someday that same camera — or one like it — might help doctors monitor your health.

A team of researchers at Xerox is working on technology that would allow doctors to obtain patients' vital signs using a simple webcam. Already, the team is testing use of the technology to monitor the pulse rate of premature babies and to track irregular heartbeats in patients suffering from arrhythmia.

Lalit K. Mestha, a research fellow at Xerox's research center in Webster, N.Y., demonstrated the technology at a media event last week in Xerox's PARC research lab in Palo Alto, Calif. While Mestha was sitting about 10 to 15 feet across the room, one of his Xerox colleagues pointed a webcam at his forehead and quickly was able to get a read on his pulse.

Xerox's core business, of course, has been helping office workers print, scan and copy documents. But the company's research labs, including PARC, have long been experimenting with using those technologies for other purposes. PARC researchers, for example, helped pioneer the printing of electronic circuits for use in things like sensors.

At a separate presentation at the media event, another Xerox researcher discussed how the company is developing technology to print lithium batteries. The company expects its technique to boost the storage capacity of the batteries by 20 percent, which could extend the range of electric cars or the life of smartphones.

The webcam technology is based on scanners Mestha and his colleagues developed for commercial color printers to monitor the colors being printed in real time to make sure they remained true. The system had to be quick, accurate and able to detect changes invisible to the human eye.

About three years ago, he realized that the technology might have uses outside of printing.

When light hits human skin, some of it penetrates as far as 1 centimeter, Mestha explained. The light interacts with blood vessels, and the wavelengths of light reflected from below the skin varies as blood pulses through the vessels. Those changes can be detected by the image sensor in a standard webcam.

The project is in its early stages. Before you see doctors or hospitals using webcams to monitor your vitals, the technology will have to go through clinical trials to prove its worth and accuracy. The team “still has a lot of work to do,” Mestha said.

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