Wearables: They Do More Than Count Steps

One of the hottest topics at the recent M-Enabling Summit near Washington, DC was wearables — all of this great new technology that attaches to our bodies to help us stay healthy.

The Summit focuses on new mobile technologies for older and disabled people, plus devices that are designed for everyone but can help seniors.

The Quantified Self: Measurement

Fitness or activity trackers, like FitBits, are the first wave of the “quantified self” movement — they measure how many steps we walk, how fast we run, how many hours we sleep, how long we stand and how many calories we eat. Most of that data is shared with our smartphones, so we can track the information from day to day and see patterns.

Some first-wave devices also measure things like blood oxygen levels, heart rate and blood pressure. But they only measure — analyzing the data is up to us.

The Quantified Self: Diagnosis

Now we’re into the second wave — devices that not only measure, but also diagnose our conditions.

Some examples:

  • Dexcom makes a continuous blood glucose monitor with tiny probes that barely penetrate the skin, unlike traditional glucometers that require a drop of blood.
  • AliveCor’s Kardia device teams up with your smartphone or smartwatch to measure and diagnose heart irregularities. It generates actionable information that you can send directly to your cardiologist or to an emergency room.
  • An implantable monitor the size of a paper clip from Medtronics can be inserted into the heart with a minimally invasive procedure and will report on any irregularities.
  • A shirt that measures your heart rate and respiration; socks that measure your gait and sense the kind of pressure that can cause diabetic foot ulcers —companies like Sensoria and BeBop are making “devices” such as these from new fabrics embedded with sensors. Sensoria is partnering with Orthotic Holdings Inc. on a device that can predict a likely fall.
  • Sensoria has also announced plans for sensor embedded shirts and sports bras that can send an alert if they sense a possible cardiac episode.
  • A personal emergency response system from Philips, the GoSafe, can help predict if a near term event, such as a stroke, may occur that will require emergency transportation.

Therapeutic Wearables

The most exciting wearables go beyond quantifying and diagnosing. They’re assistive and sometimes even therapeutic.

Some of these are new technologies coupled with old solutions. For example, eyeglasses are assistive solutions, as are hearing aids. Now, new vision enhancement devices from OrCam for people with low vision will “read” menus, signs and books, and even recognize faces, and “speak” the information into your ears. These devices use a combination of optical character recognition, machine vision, and artificial intelligence. Likewise, new hearing aids from ReSound and Signia will allow you to answer calls from your smartphone, or even get a direct audio input in your hearing aids from the microphones worn by actors in a Broadway show. Like most high-end hearing aids, these technologies don’t come cheap and they’re generally not covered by insurance.

High tech fabrics from companies like Opedix and EnerSkin can behave like compression wraps to help heal injuries. They’re designed to prevent weekend warriors from damaging untrained muscles, but the logical extension comes in the form of the SuitX exoskeleton that will help a paraplegic to walk. Eventually, a senior could slip into one for help getting around or lifting heavy objects.

The Future Is Almost Here

If you think what’s here now is impressive, you ain’t seen nothing yet. The combination of 3D printing and stem cell research holds the promise of letting us create our own custom spare parts — wearables as pieces of our bodies.

In a Brooklyn lab, a company called EpiBone is already growing replacement bones, or parts of them, to replace things like wrist or ankle bones. Eventually, scientists will be able to use these technologies to create kidneys, livers and even hearts using our own cells, so we won’t have to worry about organ rejection.

Many of these breakthroughs could be anywhere from a decade to generations away. But even today, the devices already on the market can allow us to keep better track of our conditions and share that information with our doctors, enabling us to live safer, longer and healthier lives.


Gary-Kaye-Senior-PlanetGary Kaye is the chief content officer at Tech 50+, a website for people aged 50+ who haven’t lost the passion for technology and who want tech that works for our generation. An award-winning journalist, Gary has been covering technology since IBM introduced its first personal computer in 1981. His column, “Technology Through Our Eyes” appears in half a dozen newspapers and websites across the country.


A version of this article, “Wearables — the New Fabrics of Our Lives,” was first published on Tech 50+.

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