In addition to pushing applications forward in such markets as industrial and energy monitoring, ZigBee and other low-power wireless technologies have birthed the possibility of wireless monitoring. Such monitoring is beginning to make headway in medical, health and fitness, and other applications. With lightweight, ultra-low-power wireless sensor nodes, body-area networks (BANs) can continuously monitor physical and vital parameters. As a result, they enable long-term monitoring while maintaining mobility and comfort for the patient.

For example, the first BAN connected to a mobile phone was recently demonstrated by Imec and Holst Centre together with TASS software professionals. Their mobile heart-monitoring system allows a patient to view his or her electrocardiogram (ECG) on an Android mobile phone. The low-power interface wirelessly transmits bio-signals retrieved by Imec and Holst Centre's Human++ BAN sensor nodes to the phone. There, the data are collected, stored, processed, and made available over the Internet for authorized users like physicians.

The system employs a standard, secure-digital-input-output (SDIO) interface, which enables the integration of all of the features available on Google's operating system. The mobile phone's hardware is extended to operate with low-power communication protocols and radios, enabling long-term medical telemonitoring. Because the interface is based on the Linux kernel, the system is easily ported to other Linux-based devices. In addition, it allows thresholds to be configured for the measured parameters. Alerts like SMS messages and e-mails can then be sent automatically based on these values.

This development is groundbreaking because it positions the cellular phone as a key node in future patient-monitoring networks. Such applications may eventually include wireless video, thanks to projects like the one underway at QUALCOMM's Corporate Research and Development group. That group is researching/developing a short-range wireless technology for BANs in the 8-GHz band. According to the company, it is assessing the market opportunities for this technology but has no commercialization plans to share at this time.

Yet news of this new technology, dubbed "Peanut," has traveled thanks to mention of it at this year's EmTech@MIT conference. There, the company stated that the Peanut technology needs just fractions of a milliWatt of power to deliver data at several megabits per second. In doing so, it consumes less power than Bluetooth, ZigBee, and ultrawideband (UWB) systems. Yet it could enable wireless voice, data, audio, and potentially video applications. Although Peanut's future may be uncertain, the forecast for wireless medical applications is clear. Wireless technologies, including both standards-based and proprietary approaches, will increasingly be used to improve healthcare services across the globe.