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Take Me Home, Country Roads

2000-2019

Harmony Oaks Farm

When Carolyn and I married in 1999, she sold her farm in Coos Bay before moving to my home in Portland, but brought along her beloved Quarter Horse named Lady and an Arabian gelding called Spri. My home had a beautiful view but no land for horses, so they had to be boarded many miles away, an unhappy situation for Carolyn, Lady, and Spri. We soon remedied this by moving to a farmhouse on 50 acres of land near North Plains, which we named Harmony Oaks Farm.

This was a bit of an adjustment for me, a guy who previously might list dirt, smells, and manual labor as his least favorite things. With only a dirt road for access, my nice shiny Lexus SC400 suffered flat tires and was always dusty, and there was no one to clear snow from our long driveway. Our vehicular fleet needed a makeover: a Toyota pickup replaced the Lexus, and a Kubota BX24 tractor with front-end loader and backhoe was added. I learned how to make compost using the front-end loader to combine the horse manure with grass clippings. Then I had to learn to operate the backhoe to dig trenches for various water and electrical lines. My favorite tractor job was building trails and roads!

Besides the tractor, there was a lawn mower, a chipper, a tiller, a blower, a trimmer, a pressure washer, a chainsaw and I can’t remember what else. That meant a lot of fussy small gasoline engines to maintain! My solution: an electric utility cart (basically a Yamaha golf cart with a dump bed), modeled here by Carolyn and Riley. Once I added a 48VDC to 110VAC inverter, we had a rig that could pull a dump trailer and supply 1500 watts of AC power anywhere on the property. The small gas engine tools were replaced with electric ones, and even larger electrical appliances — like a shop vac — gained new uses. Finally, mounting an electric leaf blower to the cart’s front bumper gave us a driveable street sweeper that made quick work of our 1/2 mile of driveways.

We needed to keep the crop area productive, but many farmers in the neighborhood were retiring. Eventually we found a farmer who, though elderly,  planted alfalfa on our land and brought in several harvests a year. We fed our horses some and sold off the surplus.

Woodworking Projects

2010-2015

With my retirement from full-time work at CCHIT in 2010, it was time to rewire — an opportunity to explore new pursuits and rediscover old ones. With my newly completed workshop ready, I immersed myself in woodworking, something I’d always enjoyed but never had the time and space really needed. 

I started with smaller projects, such as bird feeders, cookbook holders, and jewelry boxes, then built my bandsaw skills by helping my grandson Ryan fabricate a custom subwoofer enclosure for his car. But before cutting up expensive furniture hardwoods, I needed more confidence in my designs. Fortunately, along came SketchUp, Google’s free computer-aided design (CAD) software. It was immensely satisfying to design a furniture piece in CAD, preview and refine its appearance on screen, then finally mill, assemble, and finish the project. There are some examples in the gallery below.  

Quantified Self

2011-2018

After experiencing a cardiac event in 2007, I became intensely interested in the science of health behaviors and habits, and began experimenting with technology to support self-tracking and self-improvement. In 2011, I discovered Portland’s local Quantified Self meetups, eventually becoming one of the QS organizers, and giving presentations at their national and international meetings. In a QS presentation, an individual must describe their own self-tracking experiments, reporting three things:

  • What did you do?
  • How did you do it?
  • What did you learn?

This first presentation was delivered at the worldwide QS Conference in Amsterdam.

This second presentation describes my HealthESeat project, an effort to make “seat time” less harmful by encouraging me to exercise my legs while performing computer work.

HealthESeat was a “full stack” project. It included furniture modifications, proximity and rotation sensors, an LED biofeedback light, an Arduino microcontroller, and finally PC software to accumulate data and present visualizations of trends over time. Later, I added an EKG monitor for heart rate variability measurements.

I’ve found Heart Rate Variability (HRV) to be one of the most interesting physiological measurements. Research has associated it with physical health as well as psychological resilience.  I’ve experimented with ways to measure it — using either EKG or PPG biometric sensors — and ways to use it as real-time biofeedback, as well as long term tracking of trends, as described in this QS presentation from 2015.

I’ve seen benefits from my self-tracking efforts, but an even greater benefit has come from meeting such interesting people in the QS community. These associations planted the seeds for my post-retirement business, Wearable Health Labs LLC.

This could be the start of something big…

2012-Now

The Startup Ecosystem: mentoring, investing, incubators and accelerators

Startups — newly founded companies — are prized as engines of economic growth. While Oregon’s “fertility rate” hasn’t approached that of the SFO Bay Area, an impressive number of companies have started here. This Silicon Forest Universe chart, circa 2002, illustrated how as a handful of Oregon tech companies grew large, then spawned constellations of new startups — sometimes as formal corporate spinoffs, but more often just founded by former employees of the large companies — and the cycle continues.

Soon after I founded MedicaLogic, I was fortunate to be joined by veterans of Mentor Graphics; a decade prior to that, Mentor had been founded by some former Tektronix employees. That’s one pathway for talent, but there’s much more to the startup ecosystem.

My friend Rick Turoczy, whom I was privileged to have working with me at both MedicaLogic and CCHIT, is now a leader in Portland’s startup ecosystem. If you want to know what’s happening there, Rick’s SiliconFlorist blog is the place to go.

But Rick hasn’t just been writing about startups; for almost a decade he’s been helping them grow, as head of the Portland Incubator Experiment (PIE). I signed up as a mentor, and I’ve lost count of how many entrepreneurs I’ve enjoyed talking with as a result of that connection. In 2013, I was a mentor for the Nike+ Accelerator by TechStars and I’ve continued a relationship with my mentee from there, Sprout at Work, now a leader in digital corporate wellness services.

When I work with startups, sometimes I make a modest “angel” investment along with an advisor role, but only when I believe the company can have a positive impact on human health. In many cases I offer technical consulting to worthwhile startups pro bono for the simple joy of it, and there are several examples in my later posts.

Show Me Some Spine!

2013-2018

My first wearable project: SpineTracker

At the Quantified Self 2012 meeting at Stanford University, I met Esther Gokhale, an expert posture teacher who had been helping people with back pain.

As I studied her research, I saw how important the posture of the spine was in her methods, and I wondered if technology could be designed to precisely measure and display a person’s posture in real time. I had training and experience in engineering and medicine, but my electronic hardware  skills were decades out-of-date, and I’d never designed a wearable device. To her great credit, Esther decided to give me a chance, and Wearable Health Labs LLC was born.

During this saga, I learned to design PC boards, have them fabricated, place tiny surface mount components using a forceps and microscope, and reflow solder the boards using a $10 hot plate and homebrew temperature controller. Then I tried some primitive Computer Aided Design (CAD) software to design prototype enclosures to be 3D printed. And finally: coding firmware for Bluetooth radio modules and software for laptops to receive that data wirelessly (I had not yet learned to write smartphone apps). After 5 years, many prototype iterations (shown in the accompanying slide deck), and considerable help from other consultants, we had a finished product. The video below shows the Spine Tracker in use.

Badges of Honor

2015-2018

A Wireless, Wearable Assist for Assisted Living

In 2015 I connected with Bill Reed and Lydia Lundberg, innovative pioneers in the assisted living industry. At their company, Elite Care, Bill had been searching for technology solutions that could satisfy the conflicting demands of safety vs. autonomy for their residents, but found no suitable commercial products. The staff and residents were already wearing identification badges, so Bill hoped we might develop these into Bluetooth wireless “smart” badges that could enhance residents’ safety and comfort, as well as staff efficiency. 

Besides being nametags, the badges functioned as emergency call buttons. We experimented with auditory feedback from the call button when pressed — a short audio recording of a loved one reassuring them that help was on the way — but this didn’t prove helpful. More successful was the inclusion of accelerometer, gyro, and temperature sensors to measure activity and environment. And finally, the badges could serve as locators. With Bluetooth receiving stations (“hubs”) installed throughout the facility, a central server could estimate the location of each badge based on signal strength at each hub. The badges could also act as receivers to detect which other badges were nearby, potentially providing data on social interactions and staff presence with a resident. 

Early prototype PCB

Early prototype case

Final prototype PCB

Final prototype case

Filling a KNeed

2016-2021

Wireless, Wearable Tracker for Post-Op Knee Rehabilitation

Over a million joint replacement surgeries are performed annually in the U.S., a number that’s expected to explode as my fellow boomers injure or wear out their knees and hips. While the surgery and joint implants have been continually refined, the rehabilitation phase at home hasn’t benefited from technology — yet. Orthini, a Portland startup, was formed to address this need. I came on board as a consultant to create a proof-of-concept prototype. Think of it a specialized version of a fitness tracker that measures knee range-of-motion and rehabilitation activity during the critical first few post-operative weeks at home.

Our design goals included light weight, ease of applying/removing, and no restriction of joint movement or visibility of the healing wound site. We also hoped to make it easier to apply a cold pack, and if possible, monitor the use of that as well. 

Our brilliant apparel consultant, LaJean Lawson, came up with a lightweight harness that strapped to the thigh and calf, leaving the knee exposed. The electronics are hidden within the “smart buckles” that fasten the harness. This was my first experience designing an enclosure that progressed all the way to injection molding. The electronic design using a Bluetooth module and accelerometer sensors was more straightforward, but sensors to monitor the wearing of the device itself and application of the cold pack required some novel ideas. The US Patent Office agreed, finally issuing a patent in 2021 (3 years is par for that course).

Smart Buckle

KneeCoach Assembly

KneeCoach on Manikin Knee

KneeCoach Patent

Hearts on Fire

Cardiac Stress Monitoring and Notification for First Responders

2017-2020

After retiring from full-time work at CCHIT, I accepted a volunteer role closer to home, as an Advisory Board member for the Berglund Center at Pacific University. Following several years serving as a judge on their annual Inspired Ideas competition, I was asked in 2017 if I could take on a bigger role: mentoring their winning team of students to guide them from their raw concept to a working prototype. 

The team of psychology graduate students had been studying and treating stress in firefighters. They, and I, were surprised to learn that heart attacks — not fire, smoke, structure collapse or falls — were the leading cause of on-the-job deaths in firefighters. The students wanted to equip firefighters with heart monitors that would measure and relay their stress levels to the incident chief, but lacked any engineering training or resources. I liked this challenge immediately and accepted a role as their engineering consultant.

Wearable physiologic monitors were an already well-established technology, appearing in smartwatches and fitness bands. But there was a showstopper: their low power 2.4 GHz Bluetooth transceivers could not achieve the communication range and reliability needed at an incident site, and we could not rely on a consumer smartphone as a relay in this demanding application. Then the proverbial light bulb of invention clicked on: every firefighter already had a robust wireless communication device: a UHF portable radio, controlled by a shoulder-worn speaker/microphone. We conceived of a “smarter” speaker/microphone unit that included a microprocessor and Bluetooth transceiver to receive the physiologic data. Heart-rate based alerts could then trigger a synthesized voice message. The alert could be played locally over the speaker to notify the firefighter him/herself, and then — if more urgent — it could activate the push-to-talk circuit and be transmitted over the portable radio’s network to the incident commander.

I started with a breadboard consisting of an Arduino-compatible microcontroller, an MP3 player, a Bluetooth module, and relays to trigger the PTT and switch the audio. The students’ jaws collectively dropped when they saw their idea actually working, despite the ugly breadboard implementation. The next step was to shrink the size by designing a custom PCB and a 3D-printed case, creating a first prototype that could at least fit in your hand. For the next iteration — now called HeartMic — I plunged into C programming to get all the necessary code running on the microprocessor included in the Bluetooth chip. With the separate microcontroller eliminated, the device was slimmed down to fit in the palm of one’s hand. The finishing touch was laptop software, communicating via Bluetooth, to configure HeartMic with specific alert levels for each firefighter. We demonstrated the system at a fire station in Washington state, and applied for a patent which was granted in 2021. The students truly had a “full stack” product development experience!