Wearable technology: what exactly is it, and why is it so popular?Ankur Tomar
In our tech driven world the consumer electronics space is constantly innovating to meet the evolving needs of today’s individuals. The market category termed as ‘wearable technology’ is gaining significant popularity within this space. Today, wearable technology covers a multitude of applications, and even more devices to fulfil them. There are several general factors for this growth including human need, want and expectation, the rise of the IoT and advances in technology that make the wearable devices themselves viable.
Demand for wearable technology
An ageing population and the increase in life-style related illnesses created by more sedentary activities and richer diets are factors that are driving a need for medical wearable devices. World governments have begun to respond to these trends by investing in preventative care. This investment has, in turn, increased awareness among consumers of the benefits to be obtained from health monitoring, leading to a consumer want to monitor and manage their lifestyle to ensure they remain as fit as possible.
However, human want extends far beyond the medical sphere as people seek to be informed and entertained as well. This gives rise to opportunities ranging from immersive games to augmented reality headsets that allow users to virtually rearrange or add furniture to their rooms, and compare the results.
Such devices are also useful to third parties as well. For example, electronics in clothing, a lanyard or bracelet can allow managers to track their workers, or hospital to locate patients.
The Internet of Things and device technology are combining to meet this demand. A good example is remote patient monitoring (RPM), wherein IoT provides a route for data from devices such as glucose meters or cardiac monitors to reach the doctor’s office, together with the tools to analyse and act on the results. As the people being monitored with this technology are often infirm, the advantages of this IoMT (Internet of Medical Things)-enabled approach over repeated trips to a surgery is clear.
These types of devices can provide near real-time data analysis on blood sugar levels, insulin dosage, pulse and blood pressure. Simultaneously, data collected from the device can be combined with meal plan data from partners such as MyFitness Pal and other lifestyle/diet apps. The data can then be analysed using machine learning to help understand and identify the best care options for the patient, ultimately facilitating a complete healthcare solution through the wearable device. The Internet of Things is also a two-way highway which means that doctors can remotely control wearable medical devices as well as receiving data from them.
The growth in the market for wearable devices has benefitted from the adoption of IoT and remote visibility, controllability and analysis, yet the market’s growth depends just as much on the innovation built into the devices themselves. Users have high and complicated demands, expecting ground-breaking functionality coupled with ease of use, safety, durability, minimal size and weight, and long battery life.
One effect of innovation is that while we may think of wearable devices as wrist-worn products like Fitbit, the concept is now being extended in many ways, with clothing, jewellery and even tattoos being given intelligence and connectivity. If we also include virtual reality and augmented reality headsets, a whole further range of opportunities and applications opens up.
Types of wearable technology for different applications
- Watch-like devices: These make convenient platforms for sensors, user displays and wireless transmitters, but they do not universally appeal to consumers, who may not wish to wear a smart device on their wrist. Watch-based devices can also be inaccurate when recording step counts, while other metrics such as muscle tension and breathing rate can be difficult to obtain from the wrist.
- Clothing: Smart underwear, which by nature is close to the skin and on the body trunk, can measure breathing, heart rate and muscle tension to determine a number of health and wellness metrics like activity, anxiety and stress levels.
- Smart jewellery: this is a wearable alternative for those wishing to look fashionable rather than techie, while enjoying the benefits that technology can bring. One example of this is Senstone, which has the appearance of a gemstone pendant, yet functions as a portable voice recording assistant. It allows users to schedule calendar events, create reminders, take notes or make any other voice recordings. The voice recordings are converted into text and organised for easy access.
- Smart tattoos: Wearable technology is now beginning to appear in the form of smart tattoos, or sometimes stickers such as MC10’s BioStamp Research Connect, a sticker which attaches directly to skin and provides data to medical researchers. This type of deployment can help investigations into problems with movement, motor skills and other neurodegenerative disorders. Similarly, smart tattoos can be used for convenience and connectivity as well as medical monitoring. DuoSkin tattoos allow users to control their mobile devices, display information, and store information on their skin via near-field communication, while serving as a statement of personal style.
- Virtual reality headsets: Whilst wearable devices generally seek to be as unobtrusive as possible while maximising their ease of use and the benefits they bring, wearable devices such as VR are designed to take over the user’s attention and provide them with a totally immersive experience. Gaming is a primary market for such systems, as it allows players to disconnect from the humdrum realities of everyday life and enter the more exciting worlds engineered by the games’ designers, yet VR systems developed for gaming are being employed to great benefit in many other applications as well. In a tourism application, for instance, Marriott Hotels have created a "teleporter" which lets users step into a booth, wear an Oculus Rift headset and visit downtown London or a beach in Hawaii. The teleporter also caters to other senses, so users can feel wind in their hair and sun on their faces.
The category of ‘wearable devices’ has grown significantly as innovation has created the components and tools to develop smaller, less obtrusive or more attractive devices. This has grown the user base from those needing to monitor medical conditions or health to virtual reality and augmented reality implementations, not only for entertainment, but also for business, training, architecture and other visualisation applications. As sensors and the data they generate grow in volume, artificial intelligence strategies are finding a place in analysing the data, spotting trends, learning from them, and presenting summarised, actionable information to the devices’ managers. As this is adopted and AI drives greater efficiency and more responsive reactions to data, the potential application of wearable technology will grow further – and remains a sector to watch.