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Are Wearables a Revolution? No, Just Evolution

Dec. 24, 2015
Will advances in biosensors, electronic harvesting and 3-D printing converge to make wearables a mainstream reality?

The information research analyst Gartner forecasts that the number of networked “things” grew 30% over the last year and will reach 4.9 billion this year. Gartner further predicts that by 2020, the number of devices linked to the Internet of Things (IoT) will balloon to 25 billion and will have an impact on virtually every industry and corner of society. The nature of all those devices will vary widely, but fixed at their center driving demand, adoption and growth will be you and every other human being.

Wearable technology can be thought of as the human portal to the IoT, or what some have termed the “human cloud.” It will provide a platform for us to generate, share and access personal and relevant data between the cloud from any location at any time. Before this can happen to the extent projected, though, wearable technology will need to significantly advance beyond its current iteration. Fortunately, emerging advances in multiple fields — from biosensors to printable electronics to 3-D printing — all promise to transform wearable devices and, with them, the world in which we live.

Beyond Fitness

Early generations of wearable technology have attracted some naysayers, who regard it as a passing fad. Admittedly, many of today’s wearable devices serve more as an accessory, a dependent add-on to ubiquitous smartphone technology, which enjoyed explosive growth thanks largely to the fact that it consolidated a multitude of personal electronics into a single, portable package. So what can wearable technology offer us now that expanded smartphone functionality and performance cannot?

In a phrase: constant connectivity. Wearables go where we go. We do not put them down when we get behind the wheel, or when we do house chores, or even when we go to bed. Smartphones might provide ever-present access to our favorite applications, but wearables provide applications with ever-present access to us. Smartphones, for example, can track fitness data such as the number of steps we take in a day — but only if we never leave the phone on the counter while making dinner, or in the car while running a quick errand.

However, if personal fitness was the only application for wearable devices, then the technology might very well be as faddish as the latest diet. Fitness alone cannot justify the growth projections for wearable technology. What many analysts, experts and original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) understand is that these devices are the inevitable focus of converging megatrends, such as increasingly sophisticated networks, Big Data and advanced biosensors. While the current generation of devices only provides users with real-time health data or an enhanced version of their world, the technology will begin to show its true potential as the data it generates and accesses becomes richer.

The Big Data Dilemma

Wearable technology is making Big Data even bigger. The advent of the wearable device and all the useful data it generates is giving new insights into users’ lifestyles, but it’s also creating new challenges.

Manufacturers such as Jawbone and Nike are designing wearables that count calories, monitor heart rates and track fitness goals, with newer devices capable of sending tweets and reading messages. But who cares how many miles you ran on the treadmill last week or when you had your longest workout session?

It turns out that companies want this data to learn from the results these devices are recording. Based on analysis, they’ve been able to ascertain broad fitness trends, noting that most people are likely to be more active at the beginning of the week, with their motivation waning as the weekend approaches. That information is already helping national fitness chains alter their hours, plan staffing and customize fitness programs based on the day of the week.

But fitness bands and watches are only the start. Many are betting that, just as consumers have followed the BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) trend in recent years — seeking to use their tablets or smartphones in addition to company-issued devices — employees may soon bring wearable tech into the workplace as well. Devices like Google Glass or Apple Watch can reveal more about your work activity than you realize, determining when you enter or leave the office, monitoring stress levels and even determining who you interact with at work. All of this information can be used to create and enforce corporate policy — or become fodder for detailed performance evaluations.

Beyond the Big Brother parallels, this influx of data is likely to cause significant changes from the CIO on down. Significant resources will be required to filter and load information, along with greater analytics to extract its values. The challenge for tomorrow’s CIO will be in gaining a strong understanding of which wearable device adds value to their organization — and, as importantly, what data should be discarded.

Sized for Growth

While the adoption and use of wearables in the workplace hinges on the development of better sensor technology, improved functionality and consumer sentiment, the wearable biosensor (WBS) segment of the market is poised for huge growth. Wearable biosensors are a combination of objects worn on the body (smart watches, bandages, patches, glasses) and biosensors (devices that consist of two components: a bioreceptor and a transducer). The bioreceptor is a biomolecule that recognizes a target “analyte” (such as blood, urine or saliva) and converts the recognition event into a measurable data signal. ABI research predicts an estimated 400 million WBS devices will be in use by the end of this year.

The first generation of WBS devices were largely aimed at fitness applications, limited to measuring heart rate, sleep quality or the number of steps taken in a day. The most recent crop of devices can detect a deeper range of physiological information essential for advanced diagnoses and treatment of diseases. The data sets recorded using these systems are processed to detect events predictive of possible worsening of patient’s clinical situations and are analyzed to determine whether clinical intervention is required.

These devices are designed with an older population in mind, many of whom must manage chronic health conditions or simply wish to “age in place.” For this group, it’s all about the early detection of disease or illness, delivery of care in a less invasive manner and use of data that allows patients to take a more proactive role in personal health.

To meet this need, Google and pharmaceutical giant Novartis recently introduced Google Smart Lens, a contact lens designed to help patients manage diabetes. The lens contains a device the size of a speck of glitter that measures the diabetic’s blood sugar from the tear fluid on the surface of the eye. A wireless antenna then transmits the measurements to an external device showing up-to-date measurements.

Alternate versions of the Smart Lens can measure a compound in tear fluid called lacryglobin, which acts as a biomarker for breast, colon, prostate and ovarian cancers. Monitoring lacryglobin levels in cancer patients in remission is one potential application, as even a slight rise in levels could signal the reappearance of cancer.

It was only a matter of time before biosensor-laden apparel appeared in the “wearables” sector. Players from Noble Biomaterials to Vital Connect to Clothing+ are all incorporating biosensors into clothing. The target applications encompass tracking vital signs, physical activity, posture and even fall detection. Since apparel is neither as “optional” nor as easily forgotten as a wristband or pendant, it gathers longer and more consistent data sets for tracking and analysis.

Prospective applications for biosensor wearables go far beyond remote patient monitoring and disease tracking. They include monitoring for pollutants and detecting catastrophe to industrial process control. They can help ensure the safety of those who work with hazardous materials (e.g. military, firefighters, and emergency personnel) and track worker’s vital signs for indications of fatigue (e.g. truck drivers or surgeons).

Harvesting Energy for What We Wear

If you’ve ever felt a shock when touching a doorknob after walking across a nylon carpet, you’ve experienced the triboelectric effect, or static electricity. That friction between your shoes and the carpet causes electrons to transfer from one surface to the other, causing a tiny current to flow. Incredibly, researchers are harnessing this same principle to harvest energy from special fabrics called triboelectric nanogenerating (TENG) fabrics that we can wear as we move around throughout the day. These TENG fabrics promise to inspire a new generation of battery-free wearables. After all, battery technology has not kept up with integrated circuit innovations, causing a bottleneck in the development of smaller, lighter and less obtrusive wearables.

Researchers at Sungkyunkwan University in South Korea have developed TENG fabric that uses a silvery textile coated with nanorods and silicon-based organic material to harvest energy from everyday motion. Four pieces of layered cloth and applied pressure immediately powered light-emitting diodes (LEDs), a liquid crystal display and a vehicle’s keyless entry remote.

While triboelectric nanogenerating fabrics still reside in the research lab, their potential for wearables is immense. Wearables could soon be re-designed to harness power generated through a combination of our clothing and body motion, without the bulk of batteries. This allows for wearables to become extremely light, thin and more completely unobtrusive. With energy conversion efficiencies between 50% and 85%, TENG fabrics could generate enough energy to recharge existing batteries and supercapacitors, and even supplant batteries to power smart watches and wearables. TENG fabrics might, in the not-too-distant future, power small lightweight medical sensors in ways that haven’t been imagined.

How 3-D Affects Wearables

Whether used as a method for prototyping or to create a finished product, 3-D printing, or additive manufacturing, is likely to play a more prominent role in the process of creating wearable technology. There is already crossover, as designers can show a client a tangible prototype for a new wearable in a matter of hours.

Once printed, the prototypes are fully functional and can be subjected to actual physical conditions. That gives designers a firsthand experience with the prototype’s texture, feel and color.

Beyond rapid prototyping, the technique could pave the way for mass customization, potentially allowing consumers to personalize the look and feel of their device in ways never before imagined. As an illustration of this point, the consultancy firm zero360, teaming with Industrial Plastic Fabrications, created a biosensing wristband using 10 different color palettes from which 46 different colors could be created. 3-D printers are also capable of using multiple types of materials and, when compared with conventional castings, lead to far less wasted material.

In Conclusion

Despite advances in 3-D printing, accelerated growth of the IoT ecosystem, innovations in energy harvesting and biosensor technology, significant challenges do remain. For wider adoption, wearables must be both comfortable and effective outside the R&D lab. Sophisticated sensor systems will prove useless if the user is put off by an uncomfortable or unattractive design. Developers of the next generation of wearables must make them lightweight, sleek and intuitively usable.

The vast amount of data that wearables will generate introduces other challenges. New algorithms and analytic tools will be required to convert descriptive data to information that is more useful and actionable. Simultaneously, manufacturers must proactively address privacy, ensuring sensitive health data is kept safe in accordance with prevailing regulations like HIPAA.

To realize their potential, it will take a strong presence by manufacturers partnering with today’s most respected research institutions, suppliers and end-users to make better smart devices — devices that harvest energy from the environment and can talk to the cloud through a dizzying array of sensors.

Lars Uffhausen and Ralph Hugeneck both work for Jabil Inc., where they are the senior director of technology trends, Innovation and Investments, and the senior director of technology, medical devices, respectively.

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