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Beyond Fun: The Vital Future Of Wearables

Tomorrow's wearables might not turn on your microwave or help you get out of a bad date. But they could save lives.

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Remember life before high-speed Internet, or when having a smartphone was considered a luxury? Every few years, a new technology comes along, gains enough traction to become its own category, and has the potential to change how we live.

Enter wearables. Some expect wearable devices to repeat the growth pattern of smartphones. The category has increased its global market value by over 1,000% since 2012. More importantly, the amount is predicted to double over the next three years, reaching U.S. $12.6 billion and establishing wearables as the de facto product category for the connected world. But the prevailing wisdom among many purveyors of wearables that their products simply need to be cool—A ring that turns on your microwave! A necklace that triggers fake phone calls!—is plain wrong. The future of wearables is decidedly pragmatic. Wearables will care for the elderly, aid the disenfranchised, and maybe even help save lives.

Wearables Today

Increased market penetration and an aggressive price battle among companies selling wearables prompts a question: not whether wearable sensors (such as biometric and environmental monitors) will commoditize, but when?

Just take a look at recent startups and innovations. Seattle-based Pivotal Living, is releasing basic health wearables for as little as $12, including a one-year membership to a personalized health management application. Earlier this year, a team from the National University of Singapore developed a postage-sized device that can power basic wearables through skin friction, eliminating the need for batteries.

Yet a vast portion of wearable offerings today are being developed for niche technology enthusiasts. The Journal of the American Medical Association declared that half of the population using wearables "is younger than 35 years old and earns more than $100,000 a year." This effort often results in an array of products that are often feature-centric, over-sophisticated or, as Bloomberg puts it, "kind of stupid." CES 2015 provided us with enough examples of such wearables, prompting NPR to go even further and challenge listeners to guess which of three outlandish wearable gadgets were real. Today’s wearables are undoubtedly fun. But they run the risk of creating the equivalent of a sugar rush—a surge in excitement followed by a crush of indifference.


Helping Those Who Need It Most

In a world where wearables are widely available, cheap, and energy-efficient, what are the opportunities to impact not only the privileged, but also the underserved?

Automated Health Coordination
According to the United Nations more than 43 million people worldwide are forcibly displaced as a result of conflict and persecution—the highest number since the mid-1990s. One of the most pressing issues in refugee camps is the absence of coordination systems that can identify, diagnose and treat large populations in the event of a disease outbreak. Data is generally self-reported or retrieved using analog methods, which makes it easy to lose information and hard to develop an efficient response strategy.

Emerging products could help solve this problem. Kickstarter-backed Khushi has developed a wearable necklace for babies in the developing world to improve vaccination rates. An NFC chip holds vaccination data, identifying a baby’s medical history and connecting the information to a global vaccine database—all without the need for batteries or an Internet connection. This initiative, still in the early development stage, is already underway in India. Imagine the impact it could have in refugee camps and conflict zones.

Increased Access to Care
According to a 2014 Kaiser Family Foundation Study, more than 60% of adults who did not have health insurance said that the main reason they weren’t insured was because the cost was too high. Yet insurance companies and health care providers lose money treating diseases that could’ve been avoided through preventive care. Can wearable technology help close the gap between preventable disease and the cost of treatment?

A study by the McKinsey Global Research Institute suggests that a wearable approach to preventive care may be more cost-effective than existing solutions. Through continuous monitoring rather than periodic testing, physicians could reduce treatment costs by as much as 10% to 20%, saving billions of dollars in the care of congestive heart failure alone, the study said.

That is the rationale behind devices like wearable heart monitor AliveCor. And while some insurance providers have yet to cover devices like that, companies such as Oscar are jumping at the opportunity. Oscar provides free health-tracking devices to its customers, offering up to $240 of annual insurance incentives based on accomplishing daily fitness goals. In doing so, Oscar is promoting healthy lifestyles that could potentially save millions of dollars.


Beyond the wrist: A body of new opportunities

While the majority of wearables today are designed for the wrist, new form factors are creating opportunities with broader applications and potential for social impact. Imagine being able to wear an intelligent device virtually anywhere on the body without ever having to charge it.

A mechanical skin from Northwestern University and the University of Illinois features a sunblock-like wearable device that can detect temperature, blood flow, and variations in skin hydration to alert the wearer of potential problems. Our own concept, Dialog, imagined a device that could be worn under clothing to allow people with epilepsy to easily and discretely record data that provides insights into their condition.

Automated Self-Exams
Breast cancer is the most common cancer among women worldwide. Almost 50% of breast cancer cases and 58% of deaths occur in less developed countries. Additionally, people in low-income regions have a smaller chance of survival than people in high-income areas, mostly because of the lack of early detection programs.

Cyrcadia Health is developing an intelligent breast patch that tracks and analyzes circadian cellular tissue changes. At the same time, the company populates a global library of phenotype/genotype information that contributes to the state of breast cancer research worldwide.

it's easy to see how wearable technology could help detect and prevent other types of cancer or serious diseases by assisting people with frequent and early self-diagnosis exams.

Remote Delivery
According to the United Nations Population Fund, family planning is a key factor in reducing poverty. Yet some 225 million women who want to use safe and effective family planning methods are unable to do so because they lack access to information, services, or the support of their partners or communities.

Microtech Biochip, a company devoted to revolutionizing the drug delivery and biosensing industry, received a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to develop a microchip-based contraceptive implant that provides 16 years of reversible birth control for women in developing countries. The implant is placed under the skin during a simple office procedure using local anesthesia. Once implanted, the device can be wirelessly activated or deactivated by a physician or the patient, without requiring removal. In addition, physicians can wirelessly modify the frequency or dose of the drug to meet the individual needs of each patient.

Perhaps the next-generation wearable delivery technologies could identify specific nutrient deficiencies and deliver the necessary dose without the need for human assistance. The same technology could be applied to patients with diabetes, anemia, or hypertension.


Providing Holistic Insights on Health

Most wearable devices and companion apps only read and communicate quantitative biometric data that, albeit useful, fails to take into account emotional health. Yet the technology is available to close the loop between physical and psychological health, and a few leading companies are already exploring the possibilities in the intersection area between the two.

Research conducted over 19 years on 300,000 test subjects led Beyond Verbal to discover an algorithm that uses voice recognition to identify the full spectrum of human emotions and personality. Their wellness API is currently being integrated into wearable devices so they can detect emotional dominance, positivity levels and mood fluctuation, providing insights to advance remote psychological treatment. It is this approach that can make wearables invaluable as we strive to alleviate serious conditions and problems.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Treatment
According to one estimate, 460,000 war veterans from the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from PTSD. If this number sounds alarming, consider that it’s only a fraction of the 5.2 million Americans who suffered from this condition in 2014 alone. Just 21% of this largely underserved and often overlooked population receives what medical professionals consider "minimally adequate treatment."

Several organizations and researchers have attempted to find solutions that help victims recover their emotional ground but have struggled. Wearable technology offers an avenue to remotely alert caregivers of physiological changes—including perspiration and elevated temperature—that might signal the onset of events like anxiety attacks and other PTSD symptoms.

Neumitra, a new venture spun out of the MIT Media Lab is currently developing a device that uses advanced sensor technology to measure galvanic skin response and electro dermal activity to isolate stress responses in the nervous system associated with emotional health, triggering specific insights, visualizations, and actions like sending a comforting message or playing a soothing song.

Digital Caregivers
According to the Populations Reference Bureau, populations in developing countries will age rapidly in the coming decades: The number of older persons (those 65 or older) in less developed countries is expected to increase from 249 million to 690 million between 2000 and 2030. Informal care—often provided by spouses, adult children or other family members—accounts for most of the care that the elderly currently receive in developing countries.

The risks and burden associated with informal caregiving include deterioration of caregivers’ health due to extended work hours and stress, as well as inadequate medical support for those receiving care. This is especially relevant in developing countries where a lack of state-supported services means patients often receive informal care.

Human connection, emotional closeness and nurturing support continue to be priorities in the patient-caregiver relationship but they are often shadowed by medical responsibilities that drain the caregiver. From biometric monitoring to emergency alerts and medication administration, wearable technology can help automate these important activities, allowing caregivers to focus their time on providing more emotional care.

Preventice Body Guardian is a non-intrusive wearable body sensor that allows physicians to monitor a patient’s psychological data anywhere, anytime. Developed by the Mayo Clinic, Body Guardian is one of the few FDA-approved devices that leverages technology to either entirely replace or alleviate the need for a caregiver. This is achieved by automating key services like understanding the cardiac role of unexplained symptoms, measuring treatment effectiveness, and monitoring respiration with remote connection to a hospital.

Design for Social Impact

The opportunity outlook for wearable technology is definitely captivating. It expands far beyond the current consumer electronics space and has deep potential to disrupt entire industries while enhancing the lives of millions of people. The commoditization of sensors will open up new avenues to access underserved populations and provide them with better health care. In addition, new form factors will push designers to rethink wearables as completely adaptable devices that are meant to become a part of our daily lives, not only quantifying but also providing insight into our whole, more human selves.

The challenge for designers of wearable devices is exciting, if a little daunting. Wearables, especially the ones intended for health, have the highest pressure to not only deliver a vital service, but also carry a design that will seamlessly integrate into people’s complex lifestyles. The challenge becomes even more complex when you take into account low-resource settings, such as disaster zones and refugee camps. The real consequences (both intended and unintended) of innovation in this space will only be known once more designers develop and test concepts in real scenarios. There will be additional risks and challenges: how to keep data private, how to design against technological obsolescence, how to balance different stakeholders, and more. But if we acknowledge both the desirable and undesirable outcomes of innovation, we'll be able to mitigate risks and open a path for true progress.