One of the hottest topics in technology these days is wearables — gadgets that in one way or another attached to our bodies.
That was especially true at this year’s M-Enabling Summit, which focuses on new mobile technologies to help older adults and the disabled.
In the decade since the advent of wrist-worn activity trackers, tens of millions have been sold. Fitbit alone has sold more than 20 million devices. These activity trackers measure movement to monitor how we walk, sleep, stand, run and eat. Some also log health stats like blood oxygen levels, heart rate and blood pressure. Most of that data is shared with our smartphones and little else.
These first-wave devices have paved the way for newer wearables that can predict and even diagnose medical conditions:
- Dexcom, for example, makes a continuous blood glucose monitor that uses tiny probes that barely penetrate the skin, unlike traditional glucometers that require a drop of blood.
- AliveCor’s Kardia device teams up with your smartphone or smartwatch to measure and diagnose heart irregularities. It generates actionable information that you can send directly to your cardiologist or to an emergency room.
- An implantable monitor the size of a paper clip from Medtronic can be inserted into the heart with a minimally invasive procedure and will report on any irregularities.
- New fabrics embedded with sensors from companies like Sensoria and BeBop are also promising, allowing measurement and diagnostics without inconvenience — a shirt that measures your heart rate and respiration; socks that measure your gait and sense the kind of pressure that can cause diabetic foot ulcers. Sensoria is also partnering with Orthotic Holdings Inc. on a device that can predict a likely fall and has announced plans for sensor-embedded shirts and sports bras that can send an alert if they sense a possible cardiac episode.
- A personal emergency response system from Philips, the GoSafe, can help predict if a near term event, such as a stroke, may occur that will require emergency transportation.
Beyond devices that quantify and diagnose are perhaps the most exciting wearables: those that are therapeutic.
- New vision enhancement devices from OrCam will allow someone with low vision to “read” menus, signs, books and even recognize faces with a combination of optical character recognition, machine vision and artificial intelligence and provide you with the information in your ears.
- New hearing aids from ReSound and Signia will allow you to answer calls from your smartphone, or even get direct input from the microphones worn by actors in a Broadway show.
- High tech fabrics from companies like Opedix and EnerSkin can behave like compression wraps to help heal injuries and prevent weekend warriors from damaging untrained muscles. The logical extension of this comes in the form of the SuitX exoskeleton that will help a paraplegic to walk, and eventually could be worn to help anyone get around or lift heavy objects.
- The combination of 3D printing and stem cell research holds the promise of letting us create our own custom spare parts. A Brooklyn-based company called EpiBone is already growing replacement bones, or parts of them, in the lab to replace things like wrist or ankle bones. Eventually, scientists believe they will be able to use these technologies to create kidneys, livers and even hearts from our own cells so there will be no concerns over organ rejection.