Forbes: With High-Tech Apartment Block, Mayo Clinic Wants Volunteers to Live the Lab Rat Life
Forbes, September 30, 2015
The Mayo Clinic is setting up a floor in its in-house incubator that takes examining volunteers in clinical studies to a new level. Subjects will be tracked by pressure-sensing carpets, smart fridges, air quality sensors, and multiple cameras. This rich data will provide information about how people work or live, and how small changes to the environment could have big effects.
The 7,500 square-foot Well Living Lab, created in partnership with Delos, a company that wants to create buildings that make people healthier, aims to solve the problem of control posed by research on people’s day-to-day lives. Says Rich Macary, president of Delos Ventures: “We could create this dynamic environment where we could monitor everything.”
When a subject in a sleep study, for instance, is observed in her own home, it’s impossible to totally control for factors like light and air quality. But on the flip side, that same subject in a traditional sleep lab would struggle to produce normal results — is her problem really insomnia, or is it the unfamiliar bedroom and wires taped all over her body?
“You must solve all the problems simultaneously to get an answer,” explained Dana Pillai, president of Delos Labs, over the phone. “It is a huge data infrastructure project.”
The lab can be broken down into six configurable modules, although walls can be removed and added as needed — the lab can be both subdivided into a block of residential spaces and configured as an open-plan office, with all kinds of options in between.
The “floor” of the lab is really a kind of platform, and below it sit pressure sensors and electrical wiring, both of which can be organized according to researchers’ needs. The ceiling is similar: panels can be removed to reveal vents, pipes, more wiring and lighting that can be changed out. Windows can be dimmed down to just 2% of light making its way through; they’re also fitted with opaque shades. All the changes necessary to go from one experiment to another can be done over the course of just a few days.
And that’s just the room itself. Study subjects will be fitted with biometric sensors at the start of each experiment, and the furniture and appliances in the lab will also play a role. If the lab is set up to simulate an office setting, researchers may use pressure-sensing desk chairs to test posture or put in speakers to pipe in different types of noise in order to determine sound’s impact on stress and focus. In a residential arrangement, scientists will perhaps give sleep study subjects subjects a pressure-sensitive mattress and monitor them with thermal cameras — no more taped-on wires.
That equipment is part of a secondary goal: to test consumer-grade technology for accuracy. In an environment where everything is controlled down to the degree of light coming through the windows, it’s much easier to have confidence in testing a $12 air quality sensor against a research-grade version that goes for hundreds. (The Well Living Lab will be partnering with various companies for exactly this reason, but wouldn’t disclose what those companies are.)
More than anything, researchers at first will just be looking for connections. The first experiments will look at an office setting with a focus on things like workers’ blood pressure and heart rate. “This will be the first chance – I think – that we’ll bring people into an office lab that’s very much like a real office environment,” said Dr. Brent Bauer, the Well Living Lab’s medical director. The first subjects will likely be employees from elsewhere in the building, revealed Bauer. “Many of them already volunteer for other Mayo studies.”
All of the data will be fed from each module into the Well Living Lab’s control center, which will have both people and algorithms analyzing data in a HIPAA-compliant system. But with all the data being collected, how will researchers even begin finding firm connections?
“When you look at all the different areas that we could look at and study, they are incredibly broad,” conceded Macary. But researchers won’t start looking for off-the-wall connections right away. “We’re going to be looking for a lot of things that we think we’re going to see,” Macary explained. But those expected outcomes should just be a jumping-off point. “Sometimes we think we know what to look for and we’re going to be very open to being surprised.”