Following the launch of the BITalino ten years ago, we mark the occasion with a video and an interview with the research team of BITalino, respectively with the co-team leader Hugo Plácido da Silva, for a brief about the past and future of BITalino technology.
BITalino is a hardware device (read the original paper), even though it actually has associated software originally called SignalBIT (read the original paper). Although BITalino has already become a start-up, it is a spin-off product of IT.
Hugo Plácido da Silva (see more) is a researcher at IT, Assistant Professor at Instituto Superior Técnico, and Chief Innovation Officer at PLUX enterprise. He joined the lab in 2002 while pursuing an MSc in Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) at Instituto Superior Técnico (IST), under the supervision of Professor Ana Fred, and integrated on what evolved to become the Pattern and Image Analysis (PIA) group. He conducts research in the field of biometric recognition based on Electrocardiographic (ECG) signals. After the conclusion of his MSc, he started a path in entrepreneurship as one of the co-founders of PLUX - Wireless Biosignals, S.A., a company established in 2007 to develop innovative biomedical solutions. In 2013, as a result of the Ph.D. dissertation, his research advanced to new methods and applications of physiological sensing. Results include a patented technology for “off-the-person” ECG biometrics and establishing the foundations to what is currently CardioID - Technologies Lda., founded in 2014. The most iconic output, however, was BITalino, award-winning low-cost hardware, and open-source software toolkit, recognized by the European Commission’s DG-CONNECT as the best “Industrial and Enabling Tech” in their Innovation Radar Prize 2017. Now with thousands of devices in use by leading academia, industry, and individuals at large in more than 60 countries, BITalino is redefining biomedical education, research, and prototyping, and it all sprung out of the ingenuity fostered by IT.
- Who’s behind BITalino?
BITalino was originally created at the Pattern and Image Analysis Group of IT - Lisbon. The core team was composed of myself (PI), Prof. Ana Fred (PI), Ana Alves, Prof. André Lourenço, Carlos Carreiras, Dr. José Guerreiro, Michel Cânovas and Prof. Raúl Martins.
- Tell us, in a few sentences, how BITalino was born, and how the idea grew until BITalino become one of Portugal’s top spin-off projects …
The whole idea behind BITalino actually started somewhat as a byproduct of our work. We were starting to develop research in a novel area, which we now designate as “Invisibles” focusing in particular on Electrocardiography (ECG) data acquisition. This involves integrating sensors in everyday life objects with which the subjects interact (e.g. computer keyboard, car steering wheels, etc.).
At the time there were no publicly available resources to collect ECG using this approach; no sensors, no datasets, nothing that we were aware of at least. As a result, we started to develop our own sensors but quickly stumbled into another problem… the data acquisition systems were too expensive to deploy these sensors at scale. Existing systems could easily cost tens of thousands of Euros.
This led us to explore the use of off-the-shelve low-cost hardware prototyping platforms (e.g. the Arduino), however, assemblies with these platforms were highly labor-intensive, robustness was an issue, we needed to source parts from several different vendors, and the performance was also lacking considering what we needed.
Considering all these limitations, we considered that the best solution was to develop our own platform. As we talked with other colleagues and peers, we understood that our needs were shared by many others. In essence, there was an unmet need for low-cost biomedical development toolkits, and for sensors other than the ECG.
Afterward, we proceeded to rethink BITalino, expanding it to the beloved global educational and research tool that it has grown to be.
- In those 10 years, what are the main advances registered?
How many pages do we have available?!
It has been a remarkable and humbling experience; there are so many technical advancements, so many adventures, so many stories that it is hard to summarise in just a few lines. Of course, we can always highlight distinctions such as the “Best Industrial and Enabling Technology” award assigned by European Commission (EC) Innovation Radar Prize in 2017, having MathWorks create a BITalino toolbox for Matlab, or being featured in mainstream magazines like Wired.
However, I believe that the main advancements have been on the human side of these technologies. From what BITalino represented to the team behind it, to the lives it touches on a daily basis, it is always impressive to see how something created by need and as a labor of love, makes such a big difference to tens of thousands of people worldwide.
BITalino has facilitated the creation of enabling solutions to respond to catastrophe needs, it accelerates the work of hundreds of researchers (e.g. AttentivU smart glasses developed at the MIT), the companion BioSPPy toolbox averages 6500+ downloads per month. All of these accolades are a silver lining of sorts that gives a purpose to our work.
- What’s the role of IT in the success of BITalino, if so?
BITalino wouldn’t be possible without IT. Prof. Salema once referred to the way IT works as a Jazz orchestra, where “not all the musicians have the music written in front of them” and in the sense that researchers have “a lot of freedom to do their own choices and to progress their own way provided that they are going in the right direction”.
This forward-thinking and open mindset, the resources made available by the center, the support we always had, and, more importantly, the people (from the administrative staff to the directors), really enabled the team to harness their technical, scientific, and creative potential, boosting this project to achievements that are highly uncommon.
- What is the novelty brought by BITalino? Currently, does BITalino face any direct competition?
There were significant technical innovations, which led to multiple patented technologies and even to spin-off companies such as CardioID, but I personally believe that the main differentiating aspects were really the democratization and human-centered approach to biomedical devices and signal acquisition.
At its core, BITalino broke the mold in this industry, by providing research-grade hardware at a fraction of the cost, adopting an open-source approach to the software, designing resources in a way that is accessible to virtually anyone providing a reasonably shallow learning curve, and creating and valuing the global community of users.
Previous initiatives had tried to provide low-cost and open-source technologies but were just too technical for the average user. Other initiatives have appeared in the meantime, inspired by the example of BITalino, but are either too expensive or disconnected from the user base. In a way, BITalino created a segment of its own and is still the leader today.
- Considering the longevity of the project, how do you anticipate the future of the project?
Over the past years, we have made a strong push on applications to enable “BITalino powered”/“BITalino inside” research and development. There are multiple other ideas in the works, but let’s leave those for the next interview...
- How do you envisage the progress of biomedical signals research in the future?
Research in biomedical devices and signal acquisition is growing at an exponential rate. Novel biomedical sensing approaches (e.g., Invisibles), the internet of medical things, or artificial intelligence for bioengineering, are just a few examples of the current trends.
In particular, there is a growing demand for more pervasive devices that can detect potential health problems at a much earlier stage, there is an increasing interest in having health-sentic devices instantly connected with practitioners and healthcare professionals to enable a quick action when problems are detected, and, due to the data deluge produced by modern devices, there is a pressing need for novel algorithms and techniques that can facilitate the extraction of meaningful information to support clinical decisions.
COVID-19 has actually accelerated many of these developments, with our team actually being in the forefront of some of these developments with recent projects such as e-CoVig (view the video).