Despite ties to the fashion sector, wearables may evolve to the point where consumers may not even see the technology they’re wearing.
The Impending Evolution of Wearables
Kain Tietzel, CEO of Start Beyond, a spatial-computing studio based in Sydney, Australia, spoke to 6GWorld. Asked if he sees the development of spatial computing being dependent on wearable technology like headsets, he said there’s an ecosystem of peripheral, textile, and haptic-device manufacturers at work right now. The end result could see technology being inserted into consumers’ bodies through chips, as one example.
“I guess we’re starting to see the hints of that come out now, with Facebook talking about having a wrist-based device that will enable interaction and communication to work in conjunction with their headsets and future [augmented reality; AR] glasses. It’s an obvious play with Apple Watches and how that’s going to work with the iPhone and their glasses as well,” he said. “And there are companies like Control Bionics that are developing skin sensors that can detect subtle muscular movements and things like that, that could also be used as inputs into other sources as well.
“I really see it as the accumulation of people trying different technologies before they evolve into features and usability and parameters that will feed into the ultimate microchip technology.”
Patrick Mercier, Co-Director of the Center for Wearable Sensors at the University of California San Diego, talked separately to 6GWorld. He said things like implants are possible in the future, but for them to work a whole host of challenges must be overcome, including the need for longer battery life in small form factors.
“Let’s say you wanted to build a really small sticker that you put on your chest and that sticker will monitor your heart rate or your [electrocardiogram; ECG],” he said. “You’d love to be able to throw a sticker or Band-Aid on your chest and put it on in the morning and then not worry about it the rest of the day. Unfortunately, you can’t do that with today’s technology, because you need a battery that’s going to power not only your sensors but more importantly your Bluetooth radios and so on.
“If we can come up with a really low-power communication technology, such that we don’t need a big battery, maybe we can use a tiny solid-state battery that only costs $0.10, and, if the circuits that go onto the system also only cost a few cents, then we could conceivably come up with this class of technology that’s truly disposable, but yet will allow us to make some really interesting measurements that we’re not normally capable of doing.”
Mercier, who also spoke to 6GWorld on the subject of energy efficiency, said size was one factor why wearable devices don’t necessarily integrate into daily life seamlessly. They’re also hard to use, for example as a result of having to program wireless links. Along with poor battery life, they account for some of the top challenges facing wearable devices today, in his opinion. There’s another.
“These devices have to do something useful. So I have my Apple Watch on, but I don’t go to my doctor and say ‘Look Doc, I walked 10,000 steps today. What’s my prognosis?’ The doctor doesn’t care. That’s not useful, actionable information. It does help improve overall wellness. It’s not a bad thing to have access to that data, but, if we want to make more informed decisions about wellness or about health, we need better sensor modalities,” he said.
Wearables in the Era of COVID-19
Leo Gebbie, Senior Analyst of Wearables and XR at CCS Insight, addressed the sentiment at the market-intelligence firm’s annual Predictions event in late 2020. He said that increasing health concerns in the wake of the global pandemic will impact the design of devices moving forward.
“Skin temperature sensors will become a standard feature on wearables and on smartphones by 2022,” he suggested. “As concerns continue to grow due to the COVID-19 pandemic, device makers will seek to capitalise by including these sensors on that hardware so that consumers can monitor a metric which can often be an early symptom of illness.”
In that vein, Sensoria, an American manufacturer of smart-training apparel, recently brought to market a product called a Smart Band, which measures key indicators including temperature and blood oxygenation. Marketing Manager Sharlene Jerome said the firm uses the term “Internet of Me” to describe the IoT of the human body or human augmentation. By wearing Sensoria garments, customers can gather actionable data, but there are also undeniable outright health benefits to be had.
“We created a second company, Sensoria Health, that in early 2019 focused on delivering remote patient-monitoring wearables,” she said. “We leverage the same proprietary sensors in our fitness socks, the same microelectronics to bring product to market.
“We’re working with diabetic foot complications, so reducing the risk of amputations due to diabetes or ulcers, Parkinson’s disease, and then rehabilitation after a total knee replacement or [anterior cruciate ligament; ACL] surgery. So we actually have a Smart Knee Band as well, where we position two sensory devices – one above the knee, one below the knee – so that we can effectively monitor range of motion, which is very crucial in the rehabilitation process after those knee surgeries.”
She called the rise in remote work and people’s interest in their health right now drivers of interest in wearable technology, with sales of connected consumer devices having surged in North America during the pandemic. However, another is simply the innovation taking place.
“By that I mean big improvements in the accuracy of sensor capabilities, as well as miniaturisation so that we can integrate the sensors into wearables that are [hard to see]; which I think is important, because some people don’t want other people to know what they’re wearing and what they’re tracking,” she said. “Our vision has always been that the garment is the computer. I think we’ve been on track with this for quite some time.”
The Next Frontier for Wearable Devices
Mercier confirmed that the Center for Wearable Sensors has had some of its technology licensed commercially, but was not in a position to specify. Their next key research focus is what hasn’t been done already. Instead of developing technology used by the Apple Watch or Fitbit for example, he cited measuring electrolyte concentrations and lactic acid levels as avenues to pursue. He said there are different ways to go about measuring them, including through sweat, but he described measuring interstitial fluid as the next frontier for wearable devices.
“It’s the area just underneath your skin. Interstitial fluid for many of these quantities tends to be very highly correlated with blood,” he said. “There are two ways you can do it. One is through micro-needle technology. [It’s an] admittedly invasive technology that just barely penetrates the skin [to access] interstitial fluid. The sensation of wearing something like this is kind of like Velcro. So, it’s not meant to be painful in any way.
“There’s another way that we’ve demonstrated based on a technique called reverse iontophoresis where we basically inject a small amount of current underneath the skin and, through the nature of the current and charge of skin and glucose and so on, we can pull glucose molecules out from underneath the skin in interstitial fluid to the surface where we can then do electrochemical analysis. So that process, unlike the micro-needle phase, is completely non-invasive.”
Gebbie reiterated the notion that the pandemic has accelerated a consumer focus on health and fitness wearables, a trend that’s been taking shape for some time.
“If you look at wearables over the last few years, we’ve seen really clear development in terms of how smart watches and fitness trackers track your health and well-being, and with the sheer number and the quality of sensors,” he said. “We’re seeing more and more of these advanced sensors becoming more mainstream on today’s devices. Today, if you’re going to buy a flagship smart watch, you’d expect that it would be able to do things like take an ECG measurement or measure your blood-oxygen levels or track your sleep, all sorts of different things.
“The level of technology that we’re seeing built into wearable devices is hugely improving and it’s one of the areas that’s really providing a frontier of competition for the leaders in this field. “
Gebbie saw another trend, with extended reality devices developing quickly as well. There too, bigger isn’t necessarily better.
“ saw clear improvement across extended reality with lots of signs that the next generation of virtual and augmented reality devices will be slimmer, lighter, and more powerful than those that we’ve seen so far and this is a critical step on the journey to smart glasses,” he said, predicting Facebook would launch its smart glasses in 2022, pushing them ahead of Google and Samsung in the space.
Mershad Javad is the CEO of Mictic, an AR company focused on music. Poised to launch a pair of AR wristbands, Mictic will enable customers to simulate different instruments by simply moving their arms. Javad said he believes accessibility is the biggest reason behind the growth in the sector.
“Generally, I think companies are doing a good job of making them fashionable so you’re not carrying something that’s ugly or this big hunk of metal. So, I think accessibility is absolutely huge. And not in terms of just the actual physical product, but the technology that comes along with it. It’s just so expansive thereafter. I think that’s a major part of it. I do think we’re in a generation where there’s this infatuation or curiosity around self-presentation,” he said, regarding the desire for people to express themselves, for example through performance in Mictic’s case.
So, even as the tech gets smaller, fashion arguably remains a key element for the foreseeable future. However, once the lines begin to blur between what’s real and what’s virtual, we may find different drivers, Tietzel said.
“I think that fashion is always going to be important whilst we are physical people interacting in a physical way,” he said. “If we ever get to the point where we are completely virtual, then fashion matters less from a physical point of view and then other social representation becomes more how our avatars are represented online.
“No one wants to wear a piece of technology that stands out and makes them look different from everyone else. So I believe the blending of those technologies still is an important way to make them broadly accessible and reach mainstream appeal.”