Wearable tech was born at the point where wireless connected technology grew up and became, paradoxically, smaller. Today, integrated tech that can be discretely worn by users is everywhere – from music and fashion to fitness. Whether it’s smartwatches, heart rate trackers or even clothing, there’s no shortage of integrated, miniaturised tech that allows us to keep tabs on ourselves as we go about our everyday life.
And yet, as disposable as the fashion for wearables may seem, it is actually all part and parcel of the way that the Internet of Things (IoT) is using connected devices and sensors to create medical products that can truly change lives. But these devices go well beyond being wearable – they are now becoming invisible.
From wearable to invisible
This move from micro-tech to invisible tech can be seen in our wider culture beyond the arcane innovations emerging in medical devices.
Here’s what Forbes has to say about this wider trend: ‘The main future change for wearables is the ‘disappearance’ of them: the integration of their smart features into everyday items.
‘The rise of invisibles will see wearable devices built into the things we use every day, such as clothes, accessories, shoes and jewellery. And it will feed us data that is probably more biometric in nature than it is now for deeper insights into our health.’
Examples of this aren’t too hard to find. There are already smart trainers on the market that can record your jogging data and smart shorts are available that collect combined muscle load with heart rate data.
That’s right, a pair of running shorts that can measure the electrical activity of your muscles and share this in real-time via Bluetooth to an app. They may be well beyond most joggers’ budgets but that’s another matter.
From invisible to indispensable
Medical electronics continue to drive innovation throughout the healthcare industry.
The global medical electronics market has seen tremendous growth in the past 20 years, in terms of money invested, technical advancements made, increased healthcare reach and the integration of our healthcare with both IT and the IoT.
Research and Markets suggests that the total value of the medical electronics market will exceed $56bn by 2020, growing at an impressive Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 5.5% in the next five years.
Healthcare wearables are increasingly evident with bracelets, pendants or smart watches, performing functions such as tracking, recording and reporting every step and heartbeat of those who wear them.
The new Apple iWatch Series 4 launched on 18th September, goes one step further and has the ability to take an electrocardiogram (ECG), which offers a much more detailed picture of your heart rate. You'll be able to take a reading any time and get an alert if the watch detects any abnormal rhythms – a possible sign of atrial fibrillation.
Yet, this is just the tip of the iceberg - it’s what we can’t see that is truly revolutionary. As a solution for many patients, wearables are actually fairly high-risk. What if they are removed or simply not worn? Or they are worn incorrectly so that the collected data can’t be trusted?
The trend – as in the consumer market – is towards devices and sensors so small that you can’t see them. Or remove them.
Stuart Karten, of Karten Design, said: “Invisibles will create a world in which we don’t see technology or sensors - they are seamlessly integrated into the human body.”
Valeritas Holdings manufactures the V-Go Wearable Insulin Delivery device. This is an affordable all-in-one insulin delivery option that is worn like a patch by patients with diabetes.
Epidermal electronic systems (EES) have taken this idea one step further. Its medical tattoos are patches that allow researchers and clinicians to track vital signs. Variations have also been developed that can be voice-activated.
John Rogers, of contract manufacturer Active-PUB Solutions, said: “Our goal was to develop an electronic technology that could integrate with the skin in a way that is mechanically and physiologically invisible to the user.”
The pursuit of an invisible device is far from new for hearing aid manufacturers. For many years, hearing aids have shrunk dramatically in size as their functionality, comfort and capabilities have correspondingly increased. Instead of buttons, Starkey Hearing Technologies has developed hearing aids that are controlled by natural gestures. Other devices use GPS and cloud-based technology to personalise settings for geotagged locations.
And from audio to visual - plastic electronics are now being used in smart contact lenses. Impregnated with OLEDS, these have been invested in by Google, Samsung, and Sony for applications that include blood glucose level monitoring as well as vision correction and enhancement.
Meanwhile, inside our bodies, Organic Thin-Film Transistors (OTFTs) are being used as bio-sensors which, when placed in a patient’s body, can be used to predict a stroke, an asthma attack or to prompt a diabetic patient to take their insulin.
Electronic medical devices of the future
We are still only just discovering the possible range of uses of invisible electronic medical devices – but we’ve certainly came a long way from wearable step counters. The technology will inevitably continue to develop as it does in any sector – to suite the rising demands of the consumer.