The future will eat itself: digesting the next generation of wearable tech
By Shivvy Jervis, The Guardian
Wearable tech is well and truly mainstream – but what does the future hold? What could their potential new forms mean for our day-to-day lives, businesses and wellbeing?
The aim of wearables should be to operate silently but powerfully in the background, blurring the interface between ourselves and the device. For this tech to go beyond slapping a fitness band on our wrists (valuable as that might be), it will need to hone in on the issues that are core to our health and long-term wellbeing.
The wearable of the future is doing just that. It will be proactive and pre-emptive, rather than simply a monitor. The applications are fascinating – buoying your state of mind, aiding early detection of chronic disease, or boosting employee security and productivity.
We’re seeing partnerships soar between wearables manufacturers and the world of neurological science, security, defence and education.The healthcare industry, in particular, is outpacing the others in its rapid uptake of wearables.
Hand in hand with these exciting advances, however, is a crucial, fair-warning label – a significant number of people will understandably be hesitant to swallow a digital pill or stick a sensor on their foreheads. And employees are unlikely instantly to see the value in a computer chip skin tattoo that acts as an all-systems pass for work security.
So what can we expect?
These have understandably been subject to a gamut of robust approvals, and so haven’t hit the mainstream yet. That’s soon set to change.
Largely, they take the shape of a “digital pill” coated in digestible metals such as copper and magnesium embedded in a regular tablet. It dissolves in your stomach acid, releasing a signal to an adhesive patch on your body, which in turn communicates with an app on your smartphone, relaying the info via bluetooth.
Ingestibles are full of sensors that can not only track your vitals but tell you when you last took your medication, if you’re over-medicating or mixing two drugs that shouldn’t be taken together. Critically, it will aid doctors to work out how you’re responding to particular treatment. If you’re concerned about how your body “clears” the chip from your system, rest assured this happens the natural way.
Of these technologies, the Proteus ingestible sensor is closest to launch (appearing to be one of the only devices with an FDA-sanctioned claim at the time of writing), running clinical trials across 2015 and 2016. There’s also PillCam’s “camera pills” (in disposable capsules) that swap invasive methods to track your stomach’s health for tiny cameras that sleekly navigate your intestinal track. The tech received clearance just last year, so is relatively new.
Ingestibles could be lifesaving when treating chronic disease (nearly 50% of sufferers don’t take medications as prescribed) or spurring on advances in genomics. They could also help businesses care better for employees – upon an employee opting to hav e their health monitored, this tracking could pre-empt work-related stress illnesses and help a company customise their corporate wellness programmes to each individual.
In the UK alone between 2013 and 2014, close to 35% of work related illnesses were due to depression and anxiety. No doubt this will directly affect employees’ productivity, so businesses – sit up and take notice.
Could mind and mood-impacting wearables help? They’re claiming to be able to train your brain, calm you when you’re anxious, or buoy your mood when you’re low on energy.
This is not without controversy – many people I spoke to expressed worry over any sort of device that interfered with their state of mind or neurological processes. While I’m personally willing to try one of these nifty inventions provided it’s backed up by solid research and developed by credible experts, I recognise this is highly subjective.
In this sphere there’s Thync, developed by Harvard and Stanford alumni. It’s a sleek stick-on that uses low-energy waveforms to speak to your neural pathways, sending safe electrical pulses to your cranial or peripheral nerves to shift your state between energetic and calm.
Given the reservations some might have, will we see critical mass in terms of demand for these devices when they’re fully rolled out? I’d bet that transparency in their marketing by the startups themselves, safety reassurances from medical professionals, and direct recommendations from our doctors will go a long way to boost uptake.
Embeddables and invisibles
Embeddables are mini-chips inserted into muscles, skin or nerves. Invisibles on the other hand are stick-on tech such as a skin-coloured patch or tattoo-like sensor. These are either absorbed into the body or peeled off, and capture vital data through your skin. If you’re alarmed about any side effects it’s always worth researching each product and discussing it with a medical professional.
Engineers at Northwestern University and the University of Illinois have been developing a skin patch (technically known as an epidermal photonic sensor) since 2014. It looks like skin, and liquid crystals measure blood flow rate via body temperature, helping track cardiovascular health or skin disease.
Earlier this year employers were getting in on the act, offering employees the option of implanting RFID chips into their hands to do away with pin codes and swipe cards for building access.
Moore’s Law states that the smaller a component, the more efficient and powerful it becomes. We’re certainly seeing this with the evolution of wearables.
Fitness bands may be the beginning, but in a mere two to three years from now, however, we might look back at the current moment as a time when wearables were still coming into their own.