Forget the Apple Watch — that’s what the man behind a potentially lifesaving app for people with epilepsy did.
Ryan Clark, a video game developer, has created an app for the popular Pebble smartwatch that can detect when a user is experiencing an epileptic seizure and can notify selected contacts. The basic idea, as noted by New Scientist on Tuesday, is to use the watch’s built-in accelerometer to identify movement patterns consistent with a seizure and send a text message to friends or family members who could help.
While other wearables like the Apple Watch also contain accelerometers, the Pebble provides a unique opportunity for app developers.
“The main goals of this app are to improve the safety of people with seizure disorders, to give back a measure of independence and to give family and friends a way to help in times of need,” Clark told The Huffington Post in an email Wednesday.
It is estimated that 50,000 people die in the U.S. each year as a result of seizures or seizure-related causes.
There are a few good reasons why “Pebble Seizure Detect” only works on Pebble watches.
“I have various concerns with non-Pebble devices such as the Apple Watch,” Clark told HuffPost. “First is the price — people with disabilities often have financial challenges to deal with, and the Apple Watch is far more expensive than a Pebble.”
The Pebble starts at $99.99, while the Apple Watch starts at $349.
Another issue: Rival smartwatches like the Apple Watch or Moto 360 won’t let you load just any program. The Pebble, meanwhile, has simple development tools for app makers and allows device owners to download and install open-source programs — you don’t need to rely on approved software from the Apple’s App Store, in other words.
Angela Ostrom, the chief operating officer of the Epilepsy Foundation, told HuffPost that monitoring devices can be a huge help for those who experience seizures.
“While no device yet can prevent [Sudden Unexpected Death in Epilepsy] and not all seizures can be detected by devices, many families and individuals can benefit from devices that help detect certain seizure activity or alert people of a possible seizure,” Ostrom said.
“This peace of mind can allow a caregiver to monitor a seizure, help reposition an individual to ensure they are breathing, and seek medical attention if required,” she added.
Pebble Seizure Detect isn’t perfect, though. There’s a liability concern, for example. The app isn’t approved by the Food and Drug Administration, so it can’t be certified as a “medical device,” Clark says. Since it’s not on an app store, users actually have to download a few different parts and put the app together themselves, so responsibility rests on their shoulders. (There are clear instructions online.)
There are physical limitations, too. Pebble Seizure Detect isn’t scientifically proven. The app won’t really work if the wearer’s arm becomes trapped under their body during a seizure. It can give false positives, though there’s a way to temporarily disable it. And while Pebble has a clear appeal as a relatively cheap and open gadget, its hardware isn’t the most powerful.
Clark concedes that souped-up smartwatches with heart rate sensors — like the Apple Watch — would be ideal, if only they’d support open-source apps.
“A seizure-detecting app could do a much better job of detecting seizures (and avoiding false positives) if it could look for the heart rate fluctuations that often accompany the onset of a seizure,” Clark told HuffPost.
Still, this works well enough for Clark and his family. His wife Kathryn lives with epilepsy and told New Scientist that the app gives her peace of mind.
“Once you get over the shock that you have seizures, you do have to get down to, OK, how am I going to live with them? This has been the answer in a lot of ways for us,” she said.
Clark isn’t sure that his app will bring more attention to epilepsy, per se, but he does hope more people choose to learn about it.
“Most people have a very rudimentary understanding of epilepsy, and they likely do not know how to provide first aid for a person having a seizure,” Clark told HuffPost.