Equivital aims to help people whose jobs require them to confront dangerous situations, using wearable technology to monitor their physiological signals.
If that sounds heavy, you're not wrong, but not much is simple when it comes to professional safety monitoring. We talked to Equivital's Product Manager, Andrew Butler, to find out more about the company's plans, and how it aims to see careful employee monitoring become typical in dangerous industries.
Read next: Best smartwatches to buy right now
He revealed the next generation of Equivital sensors, including a smartwatch based on the Samsung Galaxy Watch's hardware.
What is its sensor network?
Equivital's homeland, its original raison d'être, has always been heat-stress tracking, something that most of us go through our lives not really thinking about.
As Butler explains, "Heat stress or the likelihood of heat stress is increased by a number of factors. The biggest is what people are wearing. So, if you're wearing very protective PPE, where you're wearing a respirator, a fully-enclosed suit, you're wearing quite a lot of heavy materials. And none of them are breathable – the metabolic heat which all of this is generating, going about your business, is retained.
"If you can't discharge that heat to the atmosphere, then your body just heats up. So, effectively, you're giving yourself a heat stroke. There's a mechanism in the body that, as your body core gets warmer, tries to discharge the heat to the atmosphere. When it realises it cannot do that, or it's failing to do that, it stops trying to."
That's where Equivital steps in. Its system aims to harvest data on subjects' vital information and convey this to a supervisor or on-site medic who can keep track of whether anyone's in danger. Subjects can also access an Equivital app on a smartphone, to keep track of some of their own stats. In the majority, this system is used by industrial clients whose workers interact with dangerous environments or materials.
At present, Equivital's range of sensors is comprised of a vest, along with a sensor electronics module (SEM) connected to it. Between them, these can monitor "two channels of ECG, it records breathing rate through chest expansion, and also records skin temperature", according to Butler. "There are some accelerometers in the SEM, as well, so we can derive body position and motion."
That makes Equivital's system a way to potentially monitor a variety of conditions, but it's still far from an entry-level offering. Butler confirms that the hardware side of things "runs between about £1,500 and £2,000 per user", while its software subscriptions are pricey additions to this.
But heat stress isn't just an issue in industrial complexes or on oil rigs.
The military connection
As Equivital looks to bring its system to a wider market, we were interested to talk to Butler about one of its other core areas: military use.
Equivital was recently at the controversial Defence and Security Equipment International fair in London, showcasing its wares, and doesn't appear to have any qualms about this side of the business. From its point of view, it stands to reason that, as well as first responders and industrial workers, another big category of professionals working under multiple layers of heavy protective gear would be the armed forces.
Needless to say, it's an area to be navigated carefully. Equivital doesn't disclose its clients, though Butler confirms that "we're in use by a number of militaries globally".
Equivital's mission is "to prevent any kind of loss of wellbeing through heat injury", he says, and soldiers are some of those most at risk. Butler says that "militaries, in general, have been very proactive in trying to understand what technological solutions are available for the protection of those individuals who are at risk."
The fact that the Equivital's wearables are used in life-threatening scenarios (and that applies to both its military and industrial functions) is something that weighs on the company, says Butler. Knowing that soldiers might be inclined to push their personal boundaries to fulfil their orders means that the data being fed to supervisors is hugely important, and could save the life of a dangerously overheating soldier.
Butler says, to this end: "Everything we do in terms of our hardware and software is so thoroughly tested in terms of its performance and reliability. And if there's any question about the ability to deliver a decision-making data point, we won't deliver the data point.
"So, if we don't think data's of a sufficient quality for someone to make decisions about subject welfare, we just won't deliver the data. There's a number of things that we could do that we don't do, because at the moment the technology isn't mature enough for it to be robust enough to meet our standards."
That commitment to high standards translates to a whole bunch of testing, in practice. This "involves running, jumping, crawling, doing push-ups, doing all kinds of physical activities which you'd think would be disruptive to the acquisition of good physiological data", according to Butler. All that, done in the sort of heavy protective gear that end users would be wearing.
There's no other way to do it, according to Equivital. The reality of what soldiers put themselves through mean that they have to be able to depend on their monitoring system without thinking about it.
A Samsung-based smartwatch
Moving away from the military side of things, though, Equivital's got a major new product in the pipeline: its first ever smartwatch.
Butler says there are a range of reasons why the business is now making a smartwatch. "The watch is less expensive as an entry point than a multi-node network system, and it's less expensive even than a decent smartphone.
"So, it does open up the market because of the lower cost, and because of the simplicity of wearing a watch versus wearing a more complicated and higher-performing wearable. And it opens up the market because in a lot of industrial spaces the use of phones is prohibited for various different reasons.
"A watch which can carry out a lot of functions of a phone is a nice substitute, and it doesn't fall into the same class of device as phone. Because, for example, it doesn't have a camera. One of the things that businesses are worried about is people using cameras where they shouldn't be."
That case made, Butler explains that the watch is at a pre-prototype phase for the moment, but confirms that it's based on Samsung hardware.
Which hardware exactly? "We had looked at developing our own, and we also audited pretty much every wearable watch on the market, and came to the determination, for now, that the Samsung Galaxy Watch gave us the best combination of physical quality, performance, battery life and facilities that we wanted."
The watch will use Samsung's Knox enterprise software to ensure that it's not much like the commercial version. It's effectively locked down, to simplify it into a "dedicated Equivital watch", and would have a few different usable modes. One, a personal mode, would simply be a normal smartwatch for the user.
Useful reading: Samsung Galaxy Watch review
When needed, though, the watch could be switched to an exertion mode, in which the watch can pair with other sensors to give high-quality readings on metrics like heart rate and performance, which could be useful for athletic pursuits.
The real point, though, is the third mode, where the watch would integrate with Equivital's Black Ghost monitoring system, as the on-subject hub for the data being gathered by whatever sensors are active.
The watch also means that Equivital can branch away from just heat stress monitoring, as Butler confirms. "A typical use-case for that might be lone worker protection, where you're not interested in the highest-possible fidelity of heart-rate, but you are interested in the fact that somebody's heart is beating, and it's not beating abnormally. You're also interested in the accelerometer data that the watch can surface, to see if someone's had a fall, or something like that."
We loved the Samsung Galaxy Watch when it launched, but that was back in 2018, and since then Samsung's released both the Galaxy Watch Active and Galaxy Watch Active 2. Still, it's true that of these the original Galaxy Watch is probably the sturdiest-feeling of that range, and has the highest build-quality.
Butler won't be drawn on the price of the watch at this stage, but confirms that Equivital is currently aiming at a January 2020 release date. The watch won't be the only new item to come out, as the current wearable vest is being joined by a new compression shirt that should be easier for subjects to wear.
More than that, Equivital's idea of the future for its wearable network involves it being able to interface with third-party sensors – for example carbon monoxide monitors, to allow supervisors to look over all their important data without needing to refer to separate apps or services.
Protective monitoring is a serious business, after all, and the more data being gathered the better, from some points of view. Equivital might be branching out into more types of wearable technology, but the core concern stays the same: ensuring the safety of people working in dangerous circumstances.
How we test