Wearables get a ton of attention in digital health discussions. Companies are launching heaps of fitness tracker bands and smartwatches that sync with smartphone apps to get people more involved with their own health. The problem is that people don’t wear them for long. A third of users stop using wearables by six months.
There’s a myriad of causes behind users’ short engagement with wearables, but the fact that they’re cumbersome is one major turn-off. Now, researchers and designers are working to shrink these devices down so that they can be worn on the skin like a tattoo, ingested, or eventually, as John Nosta said – “will ultimately completely go away to be absorbed into the fabric of our lives.”
NewDealDesign, the design firm behind Fitbit, is working on a digital tattoo concept called UnderSkin designed to be implanted in the hand. It could measure blood sugar levels and body temperature, but could also do other nifty things such as unlocking doors, activating your credit cards only when held, or exchanging data with another person through a simple handshake. The implant would be powered by the body’s own electrochemical energy.
NDD president Gadi Amit said in a FastCoDesign article that this is the future of wearables. He said:
“I could tell you, in the last year, I’ve had discussions with entrepreneurs, probably three to four times, about physically invasive wearables . . . it’s a reflection on what design will be in a decade or so—not necessarily about the object—but about weaving together biology science, medicine, electronics, a lot of interaction, and cultural wisdom.”
While NDD plans to build their conceptual project within five years, others have already created digital tattoos with biometric sensors. For example, University of Illinois and Northwestern University engineers have built an ultrathin electronic patch with serpentine circuits that bend, stretch and twist like the real skin it is mounted on. The tattoo-like patch has built-in sensors, LEDs, capacitors, wireless antennas and solar cells to absorb power. It could be used to record EEG and EMG readings in patients with ALS and other neuromuscular disorders.
Dermals and implantables are one way to get health data. But to get more accurate information, sensors may need to be consumed or ingested. These smart pills contain not only medications but also embedded sensors that can track vital signs and other parameters of biologic function from inside the body.
When ingested, the Helius smart pill can wirelessly transmit from the gut to a body-worn device information such as the type of pill, dosage, and the time of ingestion. The pills are used to boost medication adherence. The information transmitted by the smart pill correlates with other health data monitored by the body patch, such as respiration, heart rate, sleep and activity levels.
Smart pills could also transform medical imaging. Given Imaging’s PillCam can take images of the intestinal tract and send the information to a device to be analyzed by a doctor. This could replace invasive colonoscopy procedures.
Scientists are also using nanotechnology to treat diseases, in particular, cancer. Nanoparticles or nanorobots can deliver drug payloads to specific targets and destroy cancer cells while sparing healthy cells.
From Wearables to Invisibles
There remains many challenges to hurdle (biocompatible materials, power generation, ethical issues) as wearables evolve into embeddables, ingestibles and finally to “invisibles.” This transition to “nothing” – as John Nosta said in his Forbes column – will have huge ramifications in the era of the quantified self.
“The future belongs to the sensor that you don’t notice. It’s the sensor that’s built into your life and not attached to it.” – John Nosta
In a FastCoExist article, Stuart Karten, principal of Karten Design, wrote that he believes wearables are just a step in the evolution in body computing:
“I believe that invisibles—minimal, simple, intuitive devices that are seamlessly integrated into our lives—will create a tipping point in the adoption of wearable sensors, and will revolutionize health and wellness.”
As wearables evolve to invisibility, we should see a growing impact from these new digital health technologies on our ability to monitor and improve our health.
Jof Enriquez is a registered nurse, medical writer and healthcare journalist. You can follow him on Twitter @jofenriq.