Although it is consumer devices like Fitbit and smartwatches that have grabbed a lot of the attention, they do not tell the whole story when it comes to the development of wearable technology over the last two years.
In fact, it’s specialized technology that is crowding out the early stages of the Gartner Hype Cycle for Wearable Technologies, which maps out the lifecycle of tech from its emergence, up the peak of inflated expectations, down through the trough of disillusionment and steadily along the slope of enlightenment to the mass market.
As ever, the most “interesting” technologies are the emerging ones that start to climb the chart, and in the wearable space these include glucose monitors, smart footwear, epidermal electronics and UV trackers which detect your exposure to the sun.
Wearables in healthcare are making strides
One of the most exciting areas is wearables in healthcare. Medical wearables are getting smaller, becoming more discreet and portable. For example, in the Netherlands, the Sint Maartenskliniek in Nijmegen is pioneering new gait analysis technology that enables the 50 patients in a clinical trial to recover in the comfort of their own home – instead of monitoring in a special hospital facility. This is through using wearables that upload data to a secure medical cloud – and means doctors can focus care on patients who are not making a recovery as expected.
Another major improvement from a patient’s perspective comes from Medtronic, which has introduced the SEEQ device, which is a “mobile cardio telemetry system”. In other words, it keeps watch over your heart and is can be a short-term measure instead of having a pacemaker fitted. A wireless sensor, worn above the heart, is connected to the patient’s smartphone which is, in turn, linked to a remote monitoring center. There, experts keep an eye on patient health, around the clock. Because of the mobile element, it’s also possible to call up a patient and warn them to take it easy or they’re going to have a heart attack – or to instruct a patient that they should get themselves to hospital.
Wearables are also having an impact on professional sports
Over the summer, AFC Bournemouth became the 9th UK Premier League soccer side to use tracking technology from Catapult. Cherries players wear vests that track and quantify everything the players do in training – distance covered, movement, heart rate, steps, etc. A key advantage is that Catapult helps coaches to determine whether or not a player is really fit, since a premature return can lead to further problems. Catapult isn’t yet allowed during actual matches but so far the firm has signed up more than 1500 soccer, rugby and hockey teams.
Some sports teams using Catapult are in American football – where the NFL has teamed up with the US Army to provide more head protection during games. The Head Health Challenge aims to prevent head injury during games. The US Army Research Laboratory developed a rate-dependent tether for helmets that allows free motion at low speeds, but provides high force resistance during high-speed events. The idea is to minimize sudden acceleration – or whiplash – caused by high-speed collisions, often associated with concussion. It’s a different kind of wearable technology in the workplace.
And if your workplace is the theater of war, there are also wearables for that. The US Army’s Edgewood Chemical Biological Center recently published a graphic on the high-tech soldier, covering everything from eyewear through to wearables. Soldiers even get power-ups for their electronics in the field, thanks to foldable solar panels that fit on top of backpacks.
Wearables in the workplace
In the workplace, there’s currently lots of interest in monitoring employee wellbeing, but it’s hardly a new idea. Back in 1914, the Ford Motor Company wanted to reduce worker turnover and did so by introducing a $5 daily wage. However, this came with a condition: the adoption of a healthy and moral lifestyle. Ford started monitoring workers’ compliance with its standards and disqualified those deemed unhealthy or morally incorrect.
This was dubbed ‘Fordism’ by the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci, who argued it was necessary to preserve “a certain psycho-physical equilibrium” – or work-life balance as we know it today. And just over a century later, companies handed out 200 million wearables to employees in 2016.
Wearables in the office
Japanese firm Hitachi ran a study of desk workers, tracking movement and measuring productivity, and concluded that the overall level of productivity was actually higher when there were more frequent interruptions. Which means it’s a good idea to get up and walk around and talk to your fellow workers in an office environment.
This is probably a good idea anyway, since sitting is the new smoking. One of the earlier attempts to use wearables to motivate desk-bound employees to stay fit came in 2013, when Yahoo! issued 11,000 of its workers with Jawbone UP bands – each worth $129 at the time. There’s little public information about the scheme, but investors did criticize CEO Marissa Meyer for wasting money …
BP America meanwhile started handing out Fitbit wristbands in 2013 and today, more than 25,000 employees are estimated to have them. This year, BP employees are doing the million step challenge, but the small print says that they ONLY count steps tracked with Fitbits.
Wearables on the shop floor
On the shop floor, Wearkinetic is trying to outsmart workplace injuries, and claims it has reduced unsafe posture by as much as 84 percent. The Wearkinetic Reflex is a belt-worn device that “automatically detects unsafe postures and provides immediate feedback when a high-risk motion occurs”. Managers can view data on a dashboard, and gain actionable insights on how to avoid posture-related injuries. When it detects excessive bending, twisting or reaching, the worker gets a light vibration warning.
And because of the gamification of our world, companies using Reflex are encouraged to set new stretch goals – or no stretch goals in this case – and then try to beat them month on month.
Hot-desking is a thing, and office furniture maker Herman Miller wants to take it to the next level using personal tech. You know how the person before you has always set the chair at the wrong angle …? Well, there’s now a smartphone app that can change that. Herman Miller claims “Your organization and your people will reap the benefits of a more connected, personalized workplace.” Of course, it’s also possible for the office manager to see a dashboard showing the number of smart desk adjustments per day …
Wearables at the wheel
After a hard day at your desk, when you leave to drive home, there’s a start-up that wants to make sure you don‘t fall asleep at the wheel. Steer has raised more than 30,000 Euros to develop this wearable device … which doesn‘t hold back. If it detects that you‘re falling asleep at the wheel, you‘ll get a little electric shock to jolt you back to consciousness – let‘s just hope you don’t swerve at the same time. If this is for you, head on over to Kickstarter as funding is still open.
Wearable predictions for 2018
We’ll wrap up by making some predictions for 2018. Almost two years ago, on WearableTechWatch, our blog dedicated to wearables, we we observed that to succeed, wearable tech must become invisible, and that’s going to accelerate in 2018.
For example, AliveCor has just gained US Food and Drug Administration clearance for its Kardia device, embedded into the wristband of the Apple Watch. By placing your thumb or finger on the sensor, you can take an instant electro cardiogram.
It’s that easy … it’s very discreet … and a great example of how wearables are becoming less visible and more functional at the same time. AliveCor is reporting the first patient referrals to medical doctors as a result of heart rate anomalies detected by the Kardia band.
We’re also going to see the emergence of more discreet eye-worn devices than Google Glass, which these days is focused on industrial applications, by the way. Carl Zeiss has a prototype smart lens which includes a little heads-up display.
And no wrap-up of emerging wearables would be complete without a mention for Bragi’s The Dash Pro headphones. When paired with the mobile app iTranslate, these can now provide simultaneous, real-time translation from more than 100 languages, just like the Babel fish from Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The Babel fish was a small yellow fish that you inserted in your ear – and would provide simultaneous translation for any spoken language in the world. It was powered by brain waves. The Dash Pro is powered by rechargeable batteries but otherwise performs the same function, just proving, once again, that life imitates art.
PS We were going to present this at the DENlive event in London today – until the weather got in the way.