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  1. Lab Rat
    Hearts on the line
    At Bell Labs, a multidisciplinary approach helps researchers discover that cell phone signals can reveal our vital signs.
    by Lee Bruno
    June 5, 2002

    Scientific breakthroughs don't happen in isolation. Innovation often comes when researchers from disparate fields focus their minds on a particular question. Take, for example, Bell Labs, where the multidisciplinary approach has led to a serendipitous discovery in the noise of cell phone signals.

    At Bell Labs' Murray Hills campus in New Jersey, Victor Lubecke and Olga Boric-Lubecke realized early last year that the microwave signals transmitted by a cell phone's antenna were slightly altered after bouncing off the person holding the phone. It turns out that the wavelengths were shifted, ever so slightly, by the tiny movements of the heart beating and the lungs filling and emptying.

    The organs are moving, and their motion alters the frequency of the microwave just slightly. The nearly imperceptible variation works out to a shift in frequency of just one hertz in a spectrum of a billion. Ultimately, this one hertz might mean that an emergency physician could monitor a person's vital signs over the phone.

    The detected frequency shift, though tiny, is easily separated from that of the sound waves from the caller's voice. In fact, operators of cell phone networks treat them as background noise and filter them out. Monitoring these Doppler shifts would require both new software installed at the bay station of a cell network and a specialized chip in the cell phone itself, both of which are under development at Bell Labs.

    The common belief of most prestigious research labs, like DuPont, Corning, General Electric, IBM, and PARC (formerly Xerox PARC), is that fostering a multidisciplinary approach--encouraging the exchange of ideas between fields like math, engineering, material sciences, and others--improves the chances for breakthroughs like this one. "Research is highly risky, but the more you are connected there will likely be more interesting things to pursue," says Joe Miller, chief technology officer at Corning.

    The husband-wife team is a microcosm of the multidisciplinary approach. Olga is an electrical engineer, while Victor studies biomedical and wireless technologies. Those perspectives, combined with the informal chats and lunchroom discussions with other Bell Labs colleagues in fields like mathematics and signal processing, were central to their success. The discovery was first reported in New Scientist magazine, but hasn't been formally released by Bell Labs. The researchers have been loath to talk publicly about their work because they don't want to violate strict disclosure rules of scientific journals in which they're likely to publish their findings.

    This telesensing development fits into the category of "white space" technology, which means it's not likely to become a product for the next three to five years. The timeline depends on the Lubeckes and their colleagues being able to build a cost-effective chip to monitor these slight differences in frequency. If the technology is successful, the multidisciplinary approach could quite literally pay off for Bell Labs' parent company, Lucent.

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