Will We Be Wearing the Next Breakthrough In Health?

It’s practically a daily occurrence on technology blogs: the announcement of some new product component or wearable design that will somehow provide insight into a little-known world.

This year’s Consumer Electronics Show was dominated by the unveiling of gadgets that strapped sensors to people’s bodies, and with the impending release of Google Glass, we can be sure to witness a wave of new products that will enlighten us to the unknowns of our environment. One central theme that continues to surface in these new wearable technologies is the revolution of personal health.

In a world where societal pressures seem to constantly promote poor health and diet decisions, and care is becoming both increasingly expensive and inaccessible, there is a growing appetite for the individual to gain insight into their body and take control of their health more easily and economically. But with all these new technological developments, it can be difficult to keep up and make sense of it all.

Activity monitors like the Jawbone Up and Nike+ Fuelband use accelerometers and GPS to give wearers feedback on their caloric burn and sleep patterns. Google has paved the way for smartglasses technology, which already has an army of competitors building in cameras, pico projectors and a variety of other smart components into fashionable eyewear – allowing our experience of the world around us to be captured and analyzed by the internet and a host of apps.

Heart rate monitors and pulse oximeters are nothing new, but they are currently being refined and combined to operate in smaller forms for wearability, while software applications like Apple’s Siri and DailyBurn’s MealSnap allow people to share their life experiences with robust internet-based analytics to gain valuable information.

But this merely scratches the surface. The real promise of this confluence of personal health-applicable technology comes with innovations that are just barely emerging. Dave Aspery, founder of the Bulletproof Executive, describes wearables’ potential as boundless: infiltrating your Google calendar and your phone’s GPS to supply an algorithm that could be key to performing better, lowering stress levels, even extending your life.

Google recently announced smart contact lenses that use biofluidic sensors to track glucose levels through tears. This opens a whole new door into plausibly monitoring factors such as vitamins, thyroid hormones, allergen antibodies, histamine and adrenaline within the body by implantable wireless sensors developed by institutions like Rensselaer and MIT. New core temperature sensors developed at a university in Berlin, which, added to the developments in heart rate variability, pulse oximetry and EMG muscle sensors, can give valuable feedback for both fitness and stress – key for disease management and prevention.

Companies like Samsung, Apple and Intel among others are furiously acquiring healthcare experts and engineers specializing in these sensor technologies to help build their next generation of wearable devices, with the smartwatch being the primary product to host all these gizmos. Graham Palmer, Country Manager for Intel Canada, explains: “Technology in this wearable category gives you new capabilities that just weren’t available previously. We have crossed the economic and technological barriers that have prevented this type of technology from becoming truly pervasive.” Intel just purchased wearable company Basis Science, Inc. for a reported $100 million.

But all of this technology is of little use without tangible benefits; it is the heightened integration that wearables afford to the user that has the potential to generate true value. For example, the insights that wearables provide to our unconscious actions and thoughts could broaden our scope of stress management through enlightening us to factors that were previously unknown. Going beyond the mere regurgitation of data, wearables could also compile methods and techniques tailored to its user’s lifestyle and habits. They could act as proof for changes the user has already taken the initiative to act upon, such as diet. Aesthetically, wearables also offer an outlet for users’ self-expression. As Palmer puts it, “[Fashion] will be a big part of the conversation – how people feel about wearing these things publically, and the statements those make about them.”

Of course, this innovation doesn’t come without risks. Wearables can already transmit information about where we are and what we’re doing. You can even tell if someone is having sex. Privacy and security are two very controversial and very important concerns – ones that the technology giants are actively addressing. Aspery notes the necessary legal ramifications: “I would be the first to support a bill of rights that says you own your biometric data, you own the data about what’s going on inside your body and you can license it or unlicense it to anyone who wants rights to it.” Palmer supports the prioritization of privacy and security from the tech- developers’ perspective, comparing the trustworthiness of a wearable device as a sixth sense akin to sight or sound.

Wearable technologies promise a window to a world of information that never existed before. Our bodies have always been somewhat of a mystery and in many ways difficult to control. Making visible what goes on inside us can drive a revolution – a renaissance in the way we take control of our bodies and take ownership of our health. And it’s coming sooner than you think.

the author

James Aita

James Aita is director of strategy and business development, North America at Medicomp Systems.