While Nate Ruben was studying electrical engineering at Utah State University, his son was born prematurely and with health problems.

“For a parent, you say, ‘one in 1,000,’ and then you say, ‘You might as well be trying to winning the lottery or something with those sorts of statistics,” Ruben said. “But it really is … terrifying when you’re talking about the life of your child.”

When the infant boy finally came home, Ruben built a video baby monitor so he’d always know how his son’s heart and breathing were going.

“I thought I’d build a baby monitor anyway because I knew I’d have a child,” said Ruben, now graduated. “Then it became important to me: ‘Can we pull in some vitals here and make it more than just another video monitor?’”

That line of thinking would spur Ruben and his professor, Jake Gunther, to come up with technology allowing them to monitor a person’s heart and breathing rates via video.

“We view this technology, really, as ‘peace of mind technology,’” said Gunther, professor and department head of electrical and computer engineering. “It gives you the peace of mind that there is an electronic system doing this monitoring; it’s always there; it’s not something you have to remember to do.”

Gunther and Ruben showed The Herald Journal how the technology works Wednesday. Video from a camera is fed into software that detects the person’s heart rate and breathing rate.

As far as heart rate goes, the technology stands in contrast to how hospitals commonly monitor heart rates, through a pulse oximeter ― a clip that goes on a person’s finger. Such instruments transmit light through the skin and are hooked up to a computer that measures heart rate.

Unlike pulse oximeters, Gunther said the technology he created with Ruben measures light reflected from the skin.

“It’s a reflection technology instead of a transmission technology,” Gunther said. “If we can measure this same signal using a reflection-based technique, we don’t have to … touch you to measure your heart rate. We can just look at you.”

Gunther said the no-contact system allows for more simple hygiene and removes the need to charge batteries and for doctors to get a long-term look at heart rate.

Gunther and Ruben have formed a company named Photorithm to license their technology. They have secured a patent for the heart rate monitoring, and one is pending for technology related to breathing.

“It turns out breathing is even more important for monitoring infants than heart rate,” Gunther said. “Long before stress is detected in reduced heart rate, that stress is manifest in breathing … early on. If a baby is in distress, and you want to intervene and help, you need to measure breathing.”

Gunther and Ruben hope to commercialize their technology and make it widely available. They’re developing their own baby monitor system, called Smartbeat.

“In the next five years, we’re going to see a dramatic change in the baby monitoring space,” Ruben said. “We’ve positioned ourselves in such a way that we believe, with the use of our technology, every camera is going to be able to measure this sort of breathing. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a camera that doesn’t do what we’re already doing.”

Ruben said the reason he and Gunther have emphasized infants in the use of the technology they have developed is because infants are “the most immediate and probably the most meaningful application we have to work with.”

“It’s one that we’re both very passionate about,” Ruben said.

But Ruben also noted the elderly could benefit from his technology.

“There is an application we’ll readily pursue in the elderly monitoring care area,” he said, noting the Utah Science Technology and Research initiative is supporting those efforts.

Kevin Opsahl is a staff writer and features editor at The Herald Journal. He can be reached at 435-752-2121 ext. 1016 or by email at kopsahl@hjnews.com