Hands-on with BITalino, a microcontroller board for quirky and serious projects alike (video)

It's safe to say that BITalino isn't your average DIY electronics board. For starters, the sensors that spring from the main unit (which comprises the microcontroller, Bluetooth module and power unit) are more at home in a hospital than they are scattered over a tinkerer's workstation. Jutting off the main board are a light meter, accelerometer, heart-rate sensor (ECG), muscle activity sensor (EMG) and a sensor to measure sympathetic nervous system activity (EDG). There's also a standard LED, and while all the above forms a single structure, each module can be snapped off to mix and match for specific projects. BITalino is a semi-finalist in our Insert Coin competition being held at Expand NY this weekend, but before that kicks off, we caught up with its creator Hugo Silva to talk about the board's inception, applications and what lies in its future.

BITalino, which is palm-sized and weighs about as much as a short stack of Pringles, was developed in only six months. In part, it was born of necessity. Silva works on biometrics, among other things, as a Ph.D. student in electrical engineering at the Technical University of Lisbon, and required something cost effective to analyze large groups. While BITalino is fully compatible with Arduino, Silva needed a microcontroller that could deal with high-frequency sampling of a number of sensors. With some previous experience in a biomedical device business, Silva brought BITalino to life in a relatively short time. His motivation wasn't just for selfish needs -- he also wanted everyone to have access to the technology. Traditional medical monitoring devices aren't cheap, but at €150 ($200), Silva's approach has interested a number of universities since it first went on sale in August.

Its potential as an educational tool is obvious, but we checked out some interesting demos at BITalino's Expand booth. The board comes with free, browser-based software that can be fed data from the sensors. You can build on top of this, of course, but in its simplest implementation, we saw Silva's heartbeat sent to a laptop screen via Bluetooth. In a more complicated example, the individual ECG module was hooked up to bicycle handlebars, and heart-rate measurements were sent to a smartphone. We were also shown a remote-controlled car that was communicating with a muscle activity sensor. A flex of the forearm was the throttle cue. A plant sensor that was part Arduino measured light exposure and hydration, pumping that info back to another laptop. These demos showed the breadth of projects where BITalino could be useful. The board isn't just for education and enthusiasts, though, as it could have a more serious effect in areas like health care.

Silva imagines the inexpensive sensor kit will be used to create accessibility tools for disabled people. Someone who doesn't have full use of their body could control something with a frown of the forehead via the muscle activity sensor, for example. Furthermore, BITalino can be used in the developing world for basic medical monitoring devices. Silva showed us a heart-rate monitor contained in a 3D-printed enclosure that can be made at relatively low cost. He plans to launch a crowdfunding campaign sometime soon to make BITalino even more useful. Any cash will be used to develop new modules, such as respiration and force sensors, as well as to create specific kits, like a standalone, do-it-yourself ECG monitor. Silva also hopes that funding will improve the economies of scale, allowing him to streamline manufacturing and bring the cost of a board down to the $100 mark.

Jon Fingas contributed to this report.

For more coverage, check out our Expand event hub!