April 28, 2009 Looks like smartphones are getting even smarter. We can already access our email, GPS navigate and use a wide range of business document formats, making them an integral part of a business person’s day. Now doctors might soon be packing a smartphone alongside their stethoscopes. Computer engineers at Washington University in St. Louis have combined a smartphone with USB-based ultrasound probe technology to produce a mobile imaging device that fits in the palm.

With the help of a USD$100,000 grant from Microsoft, Dr William Richard, associate professor of computer science and engineering at Washington University, and David Zar, research associate in computer science and engineering, have made USB ultrasound probes compatible with a smartphone. To accomplish this, the pair had to optimize the power consumption, data transfer rate as well as the image formation algorithms of the probe. With that achieved, it was possible to build smartphone-compatible USB ultrasound probes for imaging different areas of the body, such as the kidney, liver, bladder and eyes, as well as the prostate veins and arteries.

The development team envisages the smartphones will become essential tools in ambulances and emergency rooms and hopefully prove vital in the developing countries, where there are insufficient trained medical staff. People in remote areas could be trained to gather data with the phones and send the information to a large medical facility where specialists can analyze the image and make a diagnosis. The technology could also provide army medics the means to quickly diagnose wounded soldiers and detect the location of shrapnel wounds.

To make it happen, the team is working at keeping the cost of the device low. A typical, portable ultrasound device can cost as much as USD$30,000, but some USB-based probes sell for less than $2,000. The team is aiming for a price of about $500. There was also a need to keep the device small, which advances in technology have enabled.

Dr Richard began working on ultrasound system designs 25 years ago, and in that time, the electronics involved have shrunk from cabinet-sized to a tiny 1-inch-by-3-inch circuit board.

Dr Richard and Zar demonstrated a fully functional smartphone-compatible USB ultrasound probe at Microsoft Research Techfest 2009 in February, and Zar presented the technology at the 2009 World Health Care Congress in Washington DC, in April.

Darren Quick