Wi-Fi ‘magic wand’ could help link up connected medical devices

Dartmouth College professor David Kotz demonstrates a commercial prototype of "Wanda," which imparts information such as the network name and password of a Wi-Fi access point, onto a blood pressure monitor. (Dartmouth College)

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A new kind of digital “magic wand” could help the technologically challenged link their blood pressure monitor or other connected medical devices to their home Wi-Fi.

Developed by a team of researchers at Dartmouth College, the wand allows users to transmit their Wi-Fi’s SSID and password to a medical device just by pointing. Dartmouth computer science doctoral student Tim Pierson said the goal of the invention was to help less tech-savvy patients take advantage of the most up-to-the-minute medical care.

“I talk to a lot of people who say, ‘I have Wi-Fi, but I have no idea what my password is. My grandson set it up,’” he said. “And in this case, they wouldn’t even need to know what it is. The wand would impart that onto the medical device.”

Such connected devices may gather patients’ health information and alert their doctor if a reading shows anomalies.

The team will present their system, which they call “Wanda,” at the IEEE International Conference on Computer Communications, known as InfoCom, in April. Wanda was developed as part of the National Science Foundation-funded Trustworthy Health and Wellness research group, which received a $10-million, five-year grant from the agency to find ways to protect patient privacy as health records go digital.

[Read more: FDA wants input on medical device cybersecurity]

To link up a device, users would simply disconnect the wand from the USB port of a Wi-Fi router. They’d bring the wand, which produces encoded radio waves to transmit the data, to a medical device to connect it. More than a foot away, the radio signal rapidly fades to the point where potential hackers or bad actors wouldn’t be able to detect the login information for the Wi-Fi.

“That’s the real trick of this,” he said, “to be able to impart this information so that your neighbor who is ‘listening’ to radio frequency can’t steal your password.”

But Pierson cautioned their prototype won’t work with any medical device right away. If the team took their invention to market, they would need to partner with medical device makers, who would need to include about 20 lines of code in the device so that it would be compatible with the wand.

The wand is only in prototype form, so researchers wouldn’t know how much it would cost on the market. Though, Pierson said the components to create the wand are inexpensive — of example, the two Wi-Fi antennas needed cost about each $7 off the shelf — so the cost for it likely would be relatively low.

Pierson said the invention has the potential to help integrate a range of connected devices.

“If the Internet of Things takes off the way that everyone says it will, we’re going to have dozens or hundreds of these devices to configure,” he said. He added, “This could provide a standard way to configure any kind of device from many manufacturers.”

Contact the reporter on this story via email Whitney.Wyckoff@fedscoop.com; or follow her on Twitter @whitneywyckoff. Sign up for all the federal IT news you need in your inbox every morning at 6:00. here: fdscp.com/sign-me-on.

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Agencies, Cybersecurity, Government IT News, Innovation, National Science Foundation (NSF), Tech
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