Guest author Andrew Hooge is an exercise physiologist, entrepreneur, software developer, author and a product manager at mobile health-data firm Validic.
Human beings have long been fascinated with the notion of people and machines becoming one.
Science-fiction author Philip K. Dick played with the premise of high-tech enhancements amping up our ability to process information. In his books, film adaptations for which include Blade Runner and Minority Report, he explored what it means to be human in a world where hardware fuels superhuman capabilities.
It’s easy to dismiss the fusion of technology and physiology as fantasy, but it’s no longer just science fiction fare. On the contrary, its beginnings are already underway with wearable gadgets. It’s still early in the evolution of wearables—in effect, we’re in its early “toddler phase.” But already, there are hundreds of devices that monitor everything from steps and sleep to blood glucose.
This emerging category of body-worn devices will become increasingly important—so much so that they will shape the story of the 21st century. I predict the following five areas, over the next few years, will see their greatest impact.
The Influence Of Wearables
When it comes to the wrist bands, watches and other devices we strap onto ourselves, much of what we touch is just noise in the form of data.
The challenge—and opportunity—is to find smarter ways to interpret the information these gadgets collect about us. That’s not the only target. Tech makers also can’t lose sight of other critical aspects, including battery life, device communication and interface development.
It’s a lot of work right now, but it could lead to advancements in data-facilitated care, personalized wearables, active coaching, gesture-based interfaces and even authentication.
What it is: Embedded biometric sensors and software that provide continuous capture, delivery and interpretation of health and performance. This allows physicians, care teams and coaches to make prescriptive decisions quickly and from anywhere.
Dr. David Berkoff, sports medicine physician at the University of North Carolina’s Department of Orthopedics, explains: “One of the main objectives right now is to improve continuity of care,” he told me. “Currently we get a very inconsistent snapshot of a patient’s health. They come in for a visit,we review the data presented that day and make decisions.”
Wearables can fill in many of the important gaps, thanks to the consistent nature of the monitoring these devices can offer. “[With these gadgets,] we are close to having continuous, accurate data about an individual’s physiology and daily behaviors,” he said. “This is key to empowering healthcare professionals to make better decisions and help drive behavior change and outcomes.”
What it is: “Made-to-fit” sensor-equipped apparel and medical devices that use 3D-printing technology for individual customization.
Nike reportedly is using advances in nano-technology to embed sensors in its apparel, and it won’t be long before individuals will be able to 3D print their own smart T-shirts. Athletes and coaches will better understand when they are over-training or under-training and when they are under hydrated and overstressed. It will also reduce the cost of production and management of the supply chain for companies like Nike.
Sensor-embedded 3D printing will also impact the medical device industry. Mayo Clinic has already produced its first custom hip. They are looking for ways to embed sensors in the devices to improve monitoring of a patient’s function and wear and tear on the joint.
What it is: Sensor-embedded hardware and apparel that monitor performance, provide interpretation and make suggestions on how to progress. This next step in wearable technology will help individuals improve everything from their fitness to their biomechanics (posture and gait for example).
One of the keys for active coaching to be successful is to improve the validity of the data and interpretation. That’s a key concern for Dr. Steven LeBoeuf, founder and president of Valencell. When I spoke to him, he explained, “one reason we started with optical signal sensor based technology in the ear was the validity of the data.”
The next step, according to LeBoeuf is to make the data relevant to improve engagement. “We need good data and then software that accurately interprets the data and provides useful advice on how to progress to make a dent in improving health and fitness outcomes.”
What it is: Human-to-computer interactions that let individuals use gestures and other natural movements to interact with devices. By adopting everyday movements and gestures in lieu of complex machine-based tasks, we can improve the user experience and make it easier for people to onboard to new devices and software.
We’ve already seen the beginning of gesture-based interfacing with Google Glass, which lets users take a picture by blinking. Recent patents from Apple suggest its new Watch may allow for gesture-based adaptive learning. This may communicate actions like navigating through Apple TV, flipping pages on your iPad while running on a treadmill, shutting off the lights, and more.
What it is: Wearables that have the ability to provide a unique signature to the individual. Use of distinctive characteristics, such as heart rhythm, could take the place of outdated credentialing methods like a written password.
How many times have you forgotten your password or had your email hacked? This could soon be a problem of the past. New technologies like watch-enabled heart rate monitors can measure one’s unique rhythm and convert it to a password. Other companies are exploring how external devices could automatically log in individuals when they are near, similar to the way Android can keep a phone and smartwatch unlocked when they are in close proximity of each other.
What Lies Ahead
These consumer-facing scenarios just scratch the surface. Go past that, and you can delve into anything from bionics or connected prosthetics—arguably the ultimate wearables—to circuit-equipped contact lenses.
There’s even research suggesting stomach acid can power batteries, which takes the notion of wearable technology and plunges it a few steps further, even going into ingestible technology.
Though it’s still early days, there’s little doubt now that human beings are increasingly merging with their technology. The innovations that establish and advance the concept aren’t just inevitable. They are, in fact, well underway. The entrepreneurs who understand this inevitability—and plan for it—will be the best poised to usher it in and benefit.
Lead photo courtesy of Atheer Labs