Over the past ten years, scientists at the University of Sussex have been developing electric potential sensors, that could detect minute voltage changes in electrical fields from a distance. This October, England's Plessey Semiconductors began shipping demo units of the commercialized product. Called the Electric Potential Integrated Circuit (EPIC) sensor, the device has several potential applications, not the least of which is its ability to deliver electrocardiogram (ECG) readings much less obtrusively than is currently possible.

In order to obtain an ECG reading presently, contact gel must first be applied to the patient's skin, then seven or more contacts are stuck to various points on the body. After each reading, the contacts must be discarded.

By contrast, EPIC requires no gel or other substances, readings can be made through clothing, and only two sensors (one held in each of the operator's hands) are necessary. Additionally, they can be cleaned and repeatedly reused. The technology is said to offer resolution as good as or better than conventional electrodes.

An electronic filtering system allows it to analyze one electrical field at a time, without being distracted by others in the environment.

According to Plessey, subsequent versions of the sensors could be integrated into clothing or hospital gurneys, for continuous monitoring of vital signs.

The changes in electrical fields that EPIC detects aren't just limited to the beating of the heart. It could conceivably be used in devices for the disabled, allowing them to control things such as electric wheelchairs via eye movements, or to move prosthetic limbs using nerve impulses still present at amputation sites.

It might also find use with firefighters, for detecting the presence of people in smoke-filled rooms.

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