But what are they all about?
The interface between humans and technology has become indistinguishable over the course of the 21st Century. Technology has seeped into the ways we communicate with one another, interact with the world around us, and complete tasks of daily life – it was only a matter of time before it began to seamlessly integrate itself with fashion.
Wearable tech – an umbrella term that describes smart electronic devices worn on the body as accessories or implants – is flourishing as companies race to make products smaller, more useful, and more aligned with tastes of new markets. From GoPros for adrenalin junkies, the Apple Watch for the working professional, to biometric sensors for patients with chronic health issues – such devices have found a home in every demographic, enhancing and augmenting users’ experiences. Engineering developments such as electroluminescent fibers, sensors, light-emitting diodes, microcontrollers, and thin embedded displays, have elevated the playing field.
170 million devices are predicted to be on the global market by 2017, and wearable technology is poised to be worth $34 billion by 2020. Giants such as Apple, Adidas, Nike, Reebok, Samsung, and Roche, have all jumped in on the action. Wearable tech represents the intersection between digital technology, design, engineering, and fashion – and the possibilities are endless.
Reinventing how we interact with the old and new
In fact, the relationship between humans and technologies is age-old. What were once wrist watches and Bluetooth headsets have evolved into ‘smart wedding rings’, ‘fitness trackers’, and even ‘digital leashes’, to name a few. Any wearable item, ranging from clothes, glasses, watches, headbands, contact lenses, to jewelry, has the potential to be enhanced with sensors or other electronic components.
But are these simply gimmicks, or will they change what society looks like? Jen Quinland envisions a future wherein sensors in clothing can transmit information to other devices, a future where logic circuits will enhance interaction and connectivity between biometric devices and household appliances. For instance, the detection of a user’s core body and temperature as he or she enters a house could automatically lead to adjustment of the thermostat or the fridge pouring out a glass of water.
What can they do for our health?
Although they have multiple applications across many fields, including gaming, transportation, education, and fashion, it is widely believed that wearable tech has the greatest impact in healthcare, medicine, and fitness. This is largely because the technology allows for the self-tracking of physiological parameters.
There are many reasons for this. The Quantified Self community believes that self-tracking provides information that can help individuals take responsibility for, improve, and manage their own health using quantitative data. Collecting personal data for fun (‘self-knowledge through numbers’), or for more purposeful health goals, has become extremely popular. This objective information about one’s own can be stored privately, or be transferred to a doctor, securely and remotely (known as telemedicine).
Diagnostic technologies have long existed in medicine. Integrating sensors which can detect important parameters – such as heart rate, blood pressure, blood oxygen, respiratory rate, respiratory volume, body temperature, calorific burn, and even sleep patterns, into wearables – was a clear, wise, next step. Such devices have now widely proliferated across the consumer market.
The majority of us carry smartphones, a device that holds more processing power than the computers of yesteryear. This is a crucial connection point for data collected by wearable technologies and is the basis for mHealth (mobile health). Thousands of mobile apps that collect and visually display data collected by wearable technologies are available to download. Apple has even developed its own range of devices and an app, collectively packaged as iHealth.
So – imagine fall detection systems that allow you to immediately locate when and where an elderly person has fallen in his or her house. Imagine being able to predict flare-ups of respiratory disease by changes in the movements and respiratory parameters and prevent these before they happen. Imagine using sensors to monitor patients’ postoperative recovery. Imagine all of these techniques applied to understand more about disease outside of the constraints of the research environment, in a patient’s home and daily life. Researchers are even studying the relationship between activity and pain in osteoarthritis using smart watches.
We can expect a future where these gadgets become the norm, and even go unnoticed. With the discovery of new functionalities, the wearable tech movement is on the cusp of exploding.