Swallowing a smart pill: The future of monitoring sports performance

Ingestibles are here and we've tried them
Smart pills: Wearing tech on the inside

Are they safe? That's the recurring thought that's running through my head. I'm staring at what looks like a paracetamol capsule, except this isn't going to relieve the pain of a headache or help combat a painful hangover. I'm trying to psych myself up to swallow my first ever electronic pill.

The e-Celsius performance electronic pill is packed with a temperature sensor, a radio frequency antenna, four batteries and a processor all wrapped up in a biomedical PVC shell.

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When swallowed, it will enter the gastrointestinal tract where it will be able to send data to an external monitor every 30 seconds wirelessly about my gastrointestinal temperature or core body temperature. Setting the parameters of the minimum and maximum temperatures, I can see alerts when I drift outside of those temperature parameters.

If I'm not near that monitor, which looks like it belongs in a hospital ward, the pill can store the data for up to 16 hours. If you're wondering what happens with the pill after it's done its job, well, it passes through the gastric system after one or two days.

I hook up the monitor to my laptop where the software is installed, follow the instructions, drop the capsule into its activator compartment. Once I get the thumbs up, I swallow with a glass of water, grab my running gear and I'm ready to go. I don't feel any different, there's no side effects. I'm officially living in the future.

The BodyCap story

But before I even get to this point of ingesting my first smart pill, I'm keen to speak to the company responsible for making them. BodyCap is based in Caen, France, set up by Fabrice Verjus, a doctor of electronics and Sebastian Moussay, a specialist in sports and performance enhancement. The small team of engineers and health scientists have been working on the idea of packing these miniaturised sensors into pill form for more than five years.

It has certainly taken a lot of time and research to get to this point where the BodyCap electronic pill is now FCC compliant and the company is already authorised to sell in the US. "The patent was actually created before the company started up in 2011," says Isabelle Lauret, marketing and business development director at BodyCap.

"Industrialisation of the pill started in 2013 before it was ready for human ingestion in 2015.

"The most difficult part of making it a reality was the industrialisation of the device. We had to work on the size, get the anatomy of the pill right and get the right level of information because you have to send the signal outside of the body."

That signal currently requires a radio frequency where the channel needs to match to one on the external monitor. It's not capable of wirelessly transmitting data over Bluetooth, yet. That does mean the current setup won't let you review progress on a a smartphone or a tablet. There's a very good reason why though.

"The pill does not use Bluetooth for transmission because we are not allowed to use Bluetooth inside the body," says Lauret.

"The pill is using a a particular frequency, so we cannot interface directly with a smartphone or a tablet. It's coming though. We already have a prototype. We have worked with a technological partner and we have a prototype tablet with this specific transmission. It clearly will be our next step. It won't be for this year though."

The core benefits


So why exactly is monitoring your core body temperature such a big deal? From a medical perspective, there's numerous use cases according to BodyCap. It can help doctors identify peaks of fever after surgery or during chemotherapy for instance. In its e-Celsius Performance form, it's very much about helping out elite athletes, whether you're a footballer or a long distance runner.

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You'll be able to record your temperature reliably as you move while training, in competition or during recovery. Coaches and athletes can identify correlations between temperature and performance and see the effect of working out in extreme environments.

When it's cold, it's very difficult to regulate your core temperature so BodyCap's system is a good fit for swimmers when they're dipping into those cold waters. It could also help identify other issues related to working in hot environments like hypothermia that may cause nausea, fainting or death.

The e-Celsius smart pills have already been in the hands (well, the stomachs) of professional athletes. Footballers at French side FC Nantes successfully trialled the electronic pills during matches last year.

"Tests weren't just carried out during the game," says Lauret.

"They were used during the warm up and during recovery time as well. They were very interested in the period of 24 hours before the game. Players have a different response to temperature and it was interesting to see the level of differences between the players.

"They also wanted to check that the warm up protocol was sufficient. Normally core temperature is increasing during the warm up and during the game. After the game, they wanted to check whether the cooling methods were sufficient and effective in helping players to recover."

It's also been trialled with professional cyclists in elite races.

"We are working a lot with the FDJ pro cycling team, one of the top European cycling teams," Lauret explains. "They have used this device and were very interested when they had two guys racing at the same time. One of the guys during the warm up was already at 39 degrees and during the race he reached over 40 and had to quit the race. The body temperatures for the two riders was very different."

What will we swallow in the future?

We are only really touching the surface of what smart pills are seemingly capable of. Aside from BodyCap, there's pill shaped cameras that can see inside parts of the human body and pills that can dispense drugs by swallowing them instead of having an injection.

Back in October 2015, Jawbone CEO Hosain Rahman claimed the company was actively developing ingestible sensors. BodyCap's e-Celsius Performance setup costs roughly €50. So the idea that everyone could soon be collecting physiological data from the inside doesn't seem that far fetched.

BodyCap certainly sees a future where its electronic pills can do more than keep an eye on your temperature and is already seeing interest from other companies in its technology.

"For the pill itself, another parameter we can look at is PH measurement but it's more for medical uses," Lauret tells us.

"We are working with other parameters with wearable sensors like activity and heart rate and with these type of sensors we could address the sports market. We are currently discussions with big brands of sports equipment and the idea would be to integrate the data coming from the pill into their equipment. So it could add value to the existing equipment of big brands."

So has taking smart pills changed my training in any noticeable way? It's hard to judge when I'm not the elite athlete it's clearly designed for and I've only had a week's worth of running sessions to let them do their magic. I'd definitely need someone to put the data to good use that's for sure. What I do know is that the prospect of taking electronic pills is something I am no longer fearful of and I cannot wait to see what the future holds for ingestibles.

What do you think?

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