Switched On: Causing a Change of Heart

Every Wednesday Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, an opinion column about consumer technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:

philips defibrillator

Matt wasn't breathing. His unsustainable thin body revealed a ghastly pallor as he lay motionless, his frozen face silent. The pressure was on to save his life. Thankfully, I had a knowledgeable companion by my side calmly giving me instructions. In bringing Matt back from death's door, I would err but ultimately prevail. Ordinarily, such a deed might earn a lifetime of gratitude, but I would be but one of Matt's many lifesavers to whom he would say not so much as "Thank you." Could anyone be so cold? So heartless?

Matt is. You see, Matt is his namesake – a plastic sheet sporting a drawing of a torso intended to demonstrate the Philips HeartStart Home Automated External Defibrillator. The device, which sells for about $1,500, administers electric shocks in an attempt to restart a heart. If you've ever seen an episode of E.R, you may think you know the drill (Hint: you don't have to shout, "Clear!"), but Philips claims that the HeartStart employs a lot of "smart" technology to ensure that it safely administers a shock only to someone who needs one.

In the walkthrough with the plastic mat, the HeartStart determined that the model needed one shock and no more. Its almost completely voice-driven interface also recognized when I made the mistake of failing to remove the backing from one of the gel pads, instructed me to do so, and proceeded after I fixed the error. In general, the voice�s authoritative tone and quick pace were effective. For example, as it is about to deliver its electric pulse, it cautions bystanders, �No one should be touching the body.� Even after a successful defibrillation, the HeartStart provides instructions on C.P.R. and even keeps a beat to assist with pumping the heart � kind of a Donkey Konga for the E.M.T. set.

However, in an actual emergency situation, it�s easy to see how any delay could move loved ones closer to panic. The HeartStart�s minimal announcement that it was �analyzing� after applying the gel pads to the body � without giving any time frame � was the life-or-death version of staring at a spinning beach ball or hourglass on a computer screen even though the process took only a second or two.

The compact HeartStart comes with its own carrying case so you can take it on vacation (and might come in handy at checkout if you�re foolish enough to use the hotel phone for long distance). However, it is not maintenance-free. Gel pads and the battery need to be replaced every few years. Fortunately, the HeartStart notifies you of its needs with a smoke alarm-like chirp designed to drive you to the brink of insanity until you do the responsible thing and cater to it. Alternatively, you might hold out for what may be Philips� next home medical breakthrough � the BrainDrain Home Electroshock Therapy machine.

Philips� unit hasn�t escaped controversy either. Using a home defibrillator does not guarantee that the afflicted person will pull through. Furthermore, several comment posters point out that there are important steps one should take beyond purchasing such a device in order to maximize the chances of helping someone survive sudden cardiac arrest.

Furthermore, critics claim that the availability of such devices might deter people from calling for help in a medical emergency. They also challenge that no one�s life has yet been saved by such a device. As for the first issue, the HeartStart case is emblazoned with a �Call 911� message on its front and its voice interface clearly tells potential lifesavers to call for emergency assistance. As for the second issue, Philips answers that � while it is true that there are no accounts of someone being saved by a home defibrillator � lives have been saved with very similar devices used in commercial settings such as restaurants and malls. Hopefully, it will be only a matter of time before the home version proves its merit in the field.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis at NPD Techworld, a division of market research and analysis provider The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On, however, are his own. Feedback is welcome at