Checking the health of a baby inside the womb using ultrasound has been going on for a good many years and can be a useful tool for detecting problems early. A new concept from industrial designer Melody Shiue proposes using the technology to enhance the bond between parents and the growing fetus. PreVue would take advantage of developments in e-textile research and advances in ultrasound technology to offer mother and father a live window into the various stages of their little treasure's development.

Ultrasound scans are often a standard part of prenatal care. Recent advances in technology now offer clinicians and parents more detailed 3D images of the fetus in real-time. Three-dimensional scanning sends in sound waves from a few different angles and a composite still image is produced that shows surface depth and volume. Now another dimension has been added – time. Real-time viewing capabilities have been added into the equation by 4D ultrasound techniques, so that live images of the fetus moving around can be seen on the screen.

As the long-term effects of repeated ultrasound exams on the fetus are still a bit of a gray area, how often such things take place is generally up to the healthcare provider. Shiue looked into the risks and concerns associated with ultrasound scanning while researching her thesis project at the University of South Wales, and told Gizmag that "in compliance with ultrasonic regulations outlined by the British Medical Ultrasound Society, I have proposed limitations on the usage of my device to a fixed frequency (10 MHz), maximum scanning time (20 minutes every 24 hours), and countdown time be apparent on screen with friendly notifications, not 'warnings'."

The parents themselves, working with their healthcare provider, would be likely to impose their own limits on the use of such a device – one interviewee revealing to the designer that a likely usage window would be 5 to 10 minutes before bedtime, to coincide with a period of high fetal activity.

PreVue would utilize upcoming e-textile technologies to incorporate the viewing screen and electronics into the device. Recent innovations like the bendy micro-LED arrays created by researchers at the University of Illinois and the work undertaken by the STELLA project offer only a glimpse of things to come. It shouldn't be too long before such things start to make regular military, medical or commercial appearances.

The device would also operate in two image modes – one for general diagnostic purposes and the other with enhanced resolution for more domestic settings. Although its primary use would be as a means of bonding enhancement rather than medical examination, Shiue says that "the user should still seek professional advice if anything is uncertain."

While safety concerns surrounding the use of ultrasound for prenatal care continue to be raised, the fact is that 4D scanning is being offered now and the personal approach offered by a device like PreVue may well be a viable alternative to the impersonal – and perhaps stressful – conditions of an examination room.

In the meantime, PreVue has been entered into the 2011 Australian Design Award/James Dyson Award competition.

View gallery - 5 images