A new kind of medical consumer
The influence of technology in the medical sector: Creating medical devices for consumers
In late 2013 I was fortunate enough to attend the MedTech Summit hosted by Silicon Valley Comes to The UK (SVC2UK) at the University of Cambridge. Think of it as a small-scale CES conference, but for healthcare. Attendees included the who’s who in Healthtech; the big thinkers behind radical medical innovations and active proponents of the people powered health movement. As a newcomer, I was amazed by this “futuristic” medical world that allowed me to monitor and take control of my own health. One trend that particularly interested me was the emergence of toy-like, user-led medical devices fit for at home treatment. An example of this was the children’s toy Focus Pocus; a tool initially intended for recreational activity currently being used as a treatment for ADD/ADHD.
This validated my hunch that as a society we are approaching an exciting tipping point in the medical world where the development of new technologies has made medical devices available to consumers at nominal cost. The sheer enormity of this opportunity extends beyond empowering individuals to be proactive about their health - it creates a culture of preventative care, and fundamentally changes the nature of the medical field.
This adaptive trend in medical equipment didn’t emerge overnight. However more recently the toy industry has been leading this trend in appropriating medical equipment used to construct new and innovative games.
In 2009 a television segment entitled “The Hottest Toys” appeared on the popular American talk show, The Ellen DeGeneres Show. Showcased was the Star Wars Force Trainer – a toy that allows players to become a Jedi Master by harnessing “The Force” by way of mind control. Included in The Force Trainer kit was a headset and a plastic ball in a vertical tube (see picture). As Ellen’s young assistant adjusted the mind control headset he starts to furrow his brow, visibly and forcibly trying to harness the force, when suddenly he proclaimed, “Everyone be quiet so I can concentrate”. As the ball began to steadily levitate higher and higher, suspending in midair, the audience, most of whom were mesmerized at what appeared to be sorcery, burst into applause, and the young assistant asserts that this may be the coolest “toy” ever.
Consumer goods as medical treatments
The technology inherent in The Star Wars Force Trainer wasn’t inspired by Luc Skywalker, nor the work of divine intervention. Rather, it’s the innovative brainchild of the bio-sensor company Neurosky, born in Silicon Valley, headquartered in Cambridge, UK.
The science behind Neurosky isn’t childsplay. The mind control headset is actually an electroencephalogram, colloquially referred to as an EEG; a medical device used to measure the brain's electrical activity. In this capacity the EEG measures beta waves associated with human emotional response and concentration. Sensors on the EEG communicate with a fan located under the ball in the vertical tube. The more a player concentrates, the more beta waves are produced, subsequently intensifying the strength of the fan, and causing the ball to levitate.
The novelty of levitation is indeed impressive, however this manufactured toy is representative of a much larger trend in society; the scalability and convergence of medical devices as consumer goods. Historically medical professionals, including neurologists, behavior therapists and psychiatrists used EEGs as a diagnostic tool to identify children with concentration disorders, including ADD and ADHD. More recently, EEGs have also been used in biofeedback therapy, a noninvasive complementary tool used in conjunction with a patient's existing ADD/ADHD treatment regime. This viable and affordable therapeutic alternative demonstrates a potential deviation away from common-place medications such as Ritalin towards alternative therapies.
Fast forward to 2013, Neurosky has build on this trend, developing yet another brainwave-controlled toy, amusingly named “Focus Pocus”. This interactive game provides players with comprehensive wizarding training, complete with instructions as to fending off dragons and flying broomsticks. Much like The Star Wars Force Trainer, players control the game through concentration while wearing an EEG-enabled headset. Indeed, Focus Pocus improves a player’s cognitive abilities including memory recall, impulse control, and the ability to concentrate. As such, some medical practitioners have made the monumental decision of prescribing Focus Pocus as a behavioral cognitive exercise, making biofeedback therapy to ADD and ADHD patients available at home. This necessary medical intervention requiring children to routinely attend hospitals 2-3 times a week has now been replaced by an at home commercially efficient product.
Neurosky is a leader in the narrative of new-age medical intervention which requires no formal disruption to daily routine. The commercialization and scalability of medical devices as consumer goods continue to make strides in the UK market, and are anticipated to become ubiquitous and a familiar sight in the coming year.