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Wearable Devices

Written by Michael Lynes

A Brave New World

  • What are some new wearable devices?
  • What are trends in the smart wearables market?
  • What is the future of wearable technology?
  • Smart textiles
  • Softmatter
  • McLear RingPay
  • SmartSole
  • Ouraring
  • Upright
  • Abilify MyCite
  • Neosensory Clarify
  • Neosensory Duo
  • Neosensory Sound
  • Awareness

Good morning fellow Cellar Dwellers! My smart watch just reminded me that spring has sprung, April showers are done, May flowers are in bloom, and there seem to be a bunch of Pilgrims tramping through the neighborhood selling used muskets, or something. So, stretching my analogy to the absolute breaking point, it’s time to shut down the oscilloscope, push back from the bench, stumble your way up out of the cellar, and explore! The weather forecast is calling for warmth and sun. Summer is almost here, and your pasty complexion and the fifteen pounds of “lab flab” that your Fitbit has been nagging you about aren’t going to cure themselves. Map an easy hiking route on your iPhone, dig the smart socks and that heart monitor vest that your significant other gave you two Christmases ago out of the back of your closet, take a moment to pair your Bluetooth-enabled, body-temperature-sensing Air Pods with your Apple Watch Ultra, and venture forth (avoiding the Pilgrims of course). If you stick with the program and follow the exercise advice from all your smarter-than-you devices, in no time you’ll be toned, tanned, and svelte, ready to hit the beach with your waterproof sunglass-camera-combo live-streaming your latest seashell discoveries to the interwebs. Ahh—paradise.

All the above is possible because of the technology we are going to cover in this month’s Technology Feature topic: wearable devices, or “wearables,” as they are known. Similar in some ways to their cousins, the IoT sensors and controls that make our homes and buildings smart, this Internet-of-Things subspecies might be better called the Internet-of-You. This tech can sense your overall health, mood, and various other physical metrics like oxygen levels, heartbeat, electrolytes, temperature, and even blood glucose. And, using wireless connectivity, relay the same to the interwebs for all to see. The last feature can be a bit concerning. These devices unfortunately can be used to spy on you, or in the best case, provide real-time medical information, like EKG or blood pressure levels, to your online physician.

So…to chip, or not to chip? Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to break down and sign up for the Neuralink beta: that is the question. I’m not sure we’re prepared yet to address that specific conundrum, but now that you’ve dragged yourself out of your lab cave and your heart rate has returned to something approaching normal, let’s continue our exploration of this topic and see if we can get there.

RESISTANCE IS FUTILE…

Since the advent of the most popular “wearable,” the smartphone, personal wireless accessories—your own portable universe of IoT devices—have proliferated throughout our society. As the Borg Queen herself might ask, “So Jean-Luc…will you be opting for the cyber eye replacement, the servo-laser hand, or both?” It’s a form of Hobson’s choice, and there seems to be no way to avoid some level of wearables. Confirmed Luddites, or those who aren’t all in on the wearables juggernaut (guilty), are becoming scarcer than hens’ teeth. Just walk through a fitness gym on any day ending in “y” and you will see more pulse-ox pickups, heart rate monitors, and sweat-proof headphones than you can shake a stick at.

Full disclosure: despite the best efforts of Madison Avenue, I don’t wear anything. Well, clothes of course. What do you take me for? But as far as any smart devices on my person, I’ve never been able to stand them. Don’t get me wrong, I am not anti-tech at all. I not only have a smartphone, but I have two that I carry all the time. The first is an iPhone for work, and the other is a Google Pixel for my personal use. But as for the accessories, any type of smartwatch, Fitbit, or even simple earbuds drive me crazy.

I know I’m in the minority, in our ever-more-connected world. For me, the disadvantages of these devices outweigh their benefits. It seems that being an un-augmented human is pretty passe these days. And with the Musk-made mind-meld already on the horizon, how far away can the full-blown Matrix-type brainstem insert be?

Seriously though, as you can see in Figure 1, humanity’s love affair with wearable devices has been going on for centuries. If you ask someone what the first piece of wearable tech they remember is, most of the time they’ll say a digital watch. And, if we restrict our definition of wearable technology to electronic devices, they might have a case. But looking at the broader field of wearable devices, the first that entered popular use would arguably be the eyeglass, developed in the 13th century to allow middle-aged engineers to read menus in dimly lit restaurants, or perhaps the abacus ring, invented around the same time so they could calculate the proper tip. In fact, my one essential wearable is a pair of eyeglasses, but only because without them I’m basically a follicly-challenged blind man.

FIGURE 1
Wearable history (Source: Vandrico.com and media.mit.edu)
FIGURE 1
Wearable history (Source: Vandrico.com and media.mit.edu)

The wearable trend continued into the latter part of the 18th century, seeing the desktop clock transition into the wearable category. Refactored first into the somewhat snobbish pocket watch, a toy of the wealthy, and later into the many forms of mechanical wristwatches, finally reaching the public at large as mass production volumes increased. This was the state of the art for almost two hundred years, right up until the invention of the transistor junction that made the next wearable possible.

Released in the mid-1950s, the TR-55 miniature transistor radio, developed by the burgeoning Japanese company SONY, was among the most popular devices of its time. It and its many look-alikes underpinned the zeitgeist of post-WWII society. The music that emitted from the tiny speaker of this 9V wonder-box produced a revolution of its own, widening the generation gap and creating a whole youth subculture. Soon after, the wristwatch was also transformed by this digital wave. The precision mechanical movement was replaced by a quartz oscillator, and the moving hands with an LCD or LED type display, but the basic function—keeping accurate time—remained unchanged.

The wearable movement accelerated in the 1980s and 90s with the innovative SONY Walkman, Texas Instruments’ portable digital calculator, and the Casio calculator-wristwatch combo that replaced the manual slide-rule used by engineers like me. But the real explosion in the wearable tech arena was to come in the latter part of the 2000s with the cellular phone and its wired headphones, followed by wireless audio accessories, smart, smarter, and really-really-smart phones, and lastly by the plethora of wireless devices we have today (Figure 2).

FIGURE 2
Wearable tech devices
FIGURE 2
Wearable tech devices
WEARABLES: THE MARKET

The current market for wearable technology splits into two rough sectors—fitness/health and medical—and is both huge and growing. As you can see in the graph from Precedence Research in Figure 3, the current aggregate market size is almost $160 billion, with North America claiming the largest market share at almost 40% [1]. This market is forecasted to grow by almost 14% to over $390 billion by the end of 2030. The number of wearable devices in this sector seems virtually unlimited, and new devices are being introduced at a rapid and accelerating pace. The largest share of the market is in consumer electronics (wristwear and headwear), followed by healthcare products like EKGs and blood glucose monitors, and lastly enterprise and industrial applications like smart textiles. The Precedence Research website lists some of the major players in the market, and I will go into more detail on some of them below.

FIGURE 3
Wearable technology market size (Source: Precedence Research)
FIGURE 3
Wearable technology market size (Source: Precedence Research)

Note that wearables, initially a stand-alone technology in their own right, have benefitted immeasurably from connectivity with the Internet. As with general IoT devices, the value of any network increases based on the number of interconnected nodes. Personal wearables, the IoT of Y.O.U., are a valuable source of information, and many companies have jumped into the market with services based on the collection and aggregation of you-focused data. There are many upsides to the wearable device—information access, entertainment, gaming, health management, and fitness enhancement—but there are many risks as well. Travelers Insurance identifies three main risks associated with wearable tech: cyber risks, bodily injury risks, and liability incurred by technology errors or omissions [2].

Cyber risks occur when personal or sensitive information collected by wearables is not secured against unauthorized access. This opens companies who make these products up to individual and class action lawsuits, and may result in costly fines and reputational damage. Additionally, there is the problem of identity theft, and the potential for abuse of sensitive personal data and images by nefarious actors.

Bodily injury caused by wearables, either through malfunction or unintentional misuse, opens manufacturers to more traditional product liability suits. Technology errors or omissions, especially if associated with any economic loss, can also be a basis for a tort. To that end, Travelers and other insurance providers are writing policies and riders specifically aimed at the wearable technology provider, thereby providing protection for companies that produce wearable devices.

Now that we have a general understanding of the current universe of wearables, let’s dive into some of the details of the tech. Just to keep things focused, I am going to pick a few example products and go through the underlying tech, the producers, and the applications. This is only a sampling of the devices out there, and any amount of research will turn up additional examples. Two broad categories of wearables will be explored: consumer, and medical/fitness.

CONSUMER DEVICES

The consumer class of wearable tech is familiar to most folks. It includes the fashion, communications, lifestyle, and sports/fitness industries. The last of these starts to cross over into the health/medical arena and has hybrid applications in both sectors.

Fashion: In the fashion area, let’s look at smart textiles. These types of wearables include fabrics that react to sound and music, fabrics that light up in response to body temperature or movement, as well as fabrics that have embedded sensors that can relay information about skin conductivity or temperature.

Softmatter offers customized smart textiles as an OEM to other companies who will fashion them into various end-user products (Figure 4). It provides design services as well, assisting its customers in turning their concepts into real textile commodities. Softmatter also has off-the-shelf products, including toolboxes and prototyping kits to allow designers and developers to experiment with smart textile technology in their applications.

FIGURE 4
Smart textiles (Source: Softmatter)
FIGURE 4
Smart textiles (Source: Softmatter)

Softmatter’s slogan, “Bringing electric circuitry to everyday fabrics,” illustrates its commitment to this technology as a basic provider. The company offers platform technology for textile engineering, integrating tech with injection molding (for example, in sneakers or sports headgear), as well as advanced materials that provide active thermoelectric cooling, radio frequency identification (RFID), and near field communication (NFC) to their fabrics.

Communications: In the communications arena there are many players, Bluetooth headphones and smartwatches perhaps being the most familiar. Now, the next generation of more niche products is coming into the marketplace. One such example is NFC devices. This short-range communications tech is used in RFID and other types of passively-energized RF coms. Most smartphones today support NFC, and wearable tech is taking advantage of this because NFC itself does not require battery power in the attached accessory. McLear’s RingPay device is a smart NFC ring that facilitates contactless payments. You can add money to it like a debit card, or link it to your bank or an electronic payment service.

Lifestyle: On the lifestyle front, a very cool wearable comes in the form of GPS-enabled footwear. SmartSole makes GPS shoe inserts geared toward the elder care market. By inserting these accessories, like orthotics, into the shoes, a caregiver can monitor their charge’s location and movements during unsupervised time. Designed to provide some peace of mind, they also can double as emergency alert devices, allowing a semi-independent elder person to call for help if they are disabled or trapped.

Sports/Fitness: Ouraring manufactures smart ring devices, offering products in a variety of styles and materials (Figure 5). Partnering with fashion brands such as Gucci, it has a full line of stylish and functional smart rings that monitor the user’s health. The company also offers personal guidance and training tips while dieting or exercising. The technology interfaces seamlessly with your smartphone—and it looks great doing it.

FIGURE 5
Ouraring Smart Ring
FIGURE 5
Ouraring Smart Ring
MEDICAL/FITNESS DEVICES

The medical smart device universe is broad, and overlaps with fitness and wellness applications in some cases. I’ll give examples for all three of these categories.

Wellness: The company Upright makes a wearable patch that monitors your posture, sending information to its custom smartphone app. A kind of gentle mom-bot that reminds you to “stand up straight, dear,” the UprightPose gives you instant feedback if you slouch while standing or sitting. The patch is designed to be inconspicuous, sticking to the user’s back. Upright’s smartphone app alerts you to your incorrect posture with a silent buzz. They also offer expert advice and guidance programs, helping to keep you on track to better health through improved posture.

Medical Patient Monitoring: Abilify MyCite is a drug system that embeds an ingestible event marker (IEM) in aripiprazole tablets, antidepressants used to treat dementia-related psychosis, schizophrenia, and other forms of depressive illnesses. The IEM is used to remotely monitor the patient’s compliance and to ensure that the effective dose is reaching the patient’s GI tract over the specified treatment interval. This form of “wearable” is a sophisticated combination of wireless technology, cellphone app, and internet connectivity, and is only prescribed under a doctor’s care.

Medical Hearing Enhancement: Neosensory makes a wearable device to assist hearing-impaired persons by turning sounds into a vibratory sensation on the skin (Figure 6). Their products include Clarify, which helps users “feel” speech on their skin, Duo for the treatment of tinnitus, and Sound Awareness, which lets users feel sounds like door chimes or running water and hence be more aware of their environment. Their products have been featured in Popular Science, Rolling Stone, and WIRED. A fully featured integrated smartphone app allows users to customize the response and the vibration patterns that the device produces.

FIGURE 6
Neosensory Clarify
FIGURE 6
Neosensory Clarify
JOINING THE COLLECTIVE: DEALING WITH THE FEAR

Well, that was a lot of information, and after researching the breadth of the wearable technology market for this article, I may just be ready to reconsider the Borg Queen’s offer one last time. After all, every engineer—even a pseudo-Luddite like me—gets tempted by new gadgets. Some of these wearables are downright awesome-looking, and I could always find a use for a laser forearm in any case.

In passing, I do want to return to the subject of fear. As we all know, Picard, in his Borg-incarnation Locutus, famously feared the loss of his humanity. I believe that my aversion to wearable technology may have a similar root. Feeling myself to be singular in this phobia, I did a little bit of digging and was rewarded with a lovely paper from scholar Jason Tham entitled “Between Fear and Astonishment: The Rhetorics of Wearable Technology.” In it the topic of fear of wearable devices and resistance to their adoption is explored, and I found that, far from being singular, my concerns about the privacy and security of wearable technology are shared by many people [3].

LAST THOUGHTS

As mentioned earlier, there is still, after all this, the question: To implant, or not? Whatever my personal feelings, the science of wearables is progressing, and technology like Neuralink, once solidly in the realm of science fiction, is closer to being a reality than we might realize. I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t want to be among the first to adopt this new tech, but I’m also just as sure that someone braver or more foolhardy will. That said, we are truly entering a Brave New World, where the lines between technology and its creator will continue to be blurred. We already see AI bots, such as ChatGPT, that can write stories and poetry as well as a flesh and blood human, and in fact better than most. The genie is well outside the bottle, and it will be up to us and future generations to figure out how to coexist peacefully with it. Azimov has already written the cautionary tale. How many today will heed it, I wonder.

But we will end on a positive note. Wearable tech is cool, and incredibly useful. As a species, we have always been able to adapt to the consequences of our own creativity. I think we will this time as well. As always, this is just one un-augmented human’s opinion. Your mileage may vary. Until next month! 

REFERENCES
[1] Precedence Research on the wearable technology market: https://www.precedenceresearch.com/wearable-technology-market[2] Travelers Insurance: How Companies can help reduce risk from Wearables – https://www.travelers.com/resources/business-industries/technology/how-companies-can-help-reduce-risk-from-wearables[3] Fear of Wearables: “Between Fear and Astonishment: The Rhetorics of Wearable Technology” https://wac.colostate.edu/docs/proceedings/cw2016/tham.pdf

SOURCES
Wearable Tech: https://www.wearabletechnology-news.com/news/2016/sep/16/cutting-through-hype-and-noise-whats-real-deal-wearables/

Science Direct: Wearable Technology – https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/engineering/wearable-technology

Wearable Technology Applications: https://www.uc.edu/content/dam/refresh/cont-ed-62/olli/newtech1.pdf

Smart Clothing Framework for Health Monitoring Applications: https://www.mdpi.com/2624-6120/3/1/9

RESOURCES
Abilify Mycite | abilifymycitehcp.com
McLear | mclear.com
Neosensory | neosensory.com
Ouraring | ouraring.com
SmartSole | gpssmartsole.com
Softmatter | softmatter.io
Upright | uprightpose.com

PUBLISHED IN CIRCUIT CELLAR MAGAZINE • MAY 2023 #394 – Get a PDF of the issue

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Michael Lynes is an entrepreneur who has founded several startup ventures. He was awarded a BSEE degree in Electrical Engineering from Stevens Institute of Technology and currently works as an embedded software engineer. When not occupied with arcane engineering projects, he spends his time playing with his three grandchildren, baking bread, working on ancient cars, backyard birdwatching, and taking amateur photographs. He’s also a prolific author with over thirty works in print. His latest series is the Cozy Crystal Mysteries. Book one, Moonstones and Murder, is already in print, and book two is on its way. His latest works include several collections of ghost stories, short works of general fiction, a collection called Angel Stories, and another collection called November Tales, inspired by the fiction of Ray Bradbury. He currently lives with his wife Margaret in the beautiful, secluded hills of Sussex County, New Jersey. You can contact him via email at mikelynes@gmail.com.

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Wearable Devices

by Michael Lynes time to read: 12 min