New 'Wearable' Computers (Stuck to the Skin or Implanted) Would Relay Personal Information through Smartphones and Internet
June 20, 2013
James Temple / San Francisco Chronicle & De Zeen Magazine
With new mini-computers that attach to the skin like Band-Aids, the government will be able to remotely monitor an individual's location, motions, and physical condition. Corporations are planning to use this new trove of information to promote new forms of marketing. As one advocate of 'wearable' computers predicted: "You're going to have people wearing an armband that senses when your blood glucose level is down, and a drone is going to arrive with your pizza."
You'll Wear Computing's Next Big Thing
James Temple / San Francisco Chronicle
(June 19, 2013) -- During an afternoon session at the Bloomberg Next Big Thing Summit this week, venture capitalist Trae Vassallo walked onstage wearing Google's connected eyewear on her face and a fitness bracelet on either wrist.
"Smartphones are everywhere now," said Vassallo, a general partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. "Wearables are really a natural evolution for the mobile computing platform. It's now small enough, smart enough and the batteries are good enough that we can start doing that."
Vassallo's onstage appearance may have been the most visible evidence at the Half Moon Bay conference that Silicon Valley is thinking hard about wearable computing, but it was far from the only sign. The subject came up repeatedly in discussions and presentations, all purportedly aimed at answering the question implied in the summit's name: What is the tech sector's next big thing?
Early adopters are already wearing Google Glass in the wild, and companies like Jawbone, Basis Science and Fitbit have been selling smart wristbands or watches that track movements and other health signals for years. But speakers stressed that we've only seen the earliest versions of what will become available, and the smallest hints of the insights that become possible as more sensors capture greater amounts of information about us and the world.
The combination of this hardware, software and data will "deliver a whole new generation of personalized services," said Justin Rattner, chief technology officer at Intel.
So far the use cases are fairly limited. Google Glass does less than what your smartphone does, but with the added benefit (if that's the word) of being on your face and directing notifications to your peripheral vision. The wristbands all purport to provide better insights into your health, generally by monitoring movements with built-in accelerometers: your sleeping patterns, eating habits, amount of exercise and more.
The Basis band that Vassallo wore also monitors heart rate, skin temperature and perspiration.
"What it gives you is an interesting sense of what my metabolism is doing, what my stress level is," she said. "They're not at the stage yet where they're doing high-level analysis, but when they get there, I can be living smarter."
In an earlier session, venture capitalist Tim Draper put it a little differently -- that is to say, creepier: "You're going to have people wearing an armband that senses when your blood glucose level is down, and a drone is going to arrive with your pizza."
Other speakers mentioned the possibility of even more sophisticated biosensors, pointing out that the X Prize Foundation teamed up with Qualcomm several years ago to announce a $10 million prize for anyone who can develop a "tricorder." That would be the fictional handheld device from "Star Trek" that could scan and diagnose patients without breaking the skin.
But we're not quite at that Brave New Autonomous-Pizza-Delivering, Diagnosis-Offering World yet.
I've long been skeptical that the small insights delivered from smartbands to date generally add up to significant changes in behavior. I tend to think these devices are appealing to people who don't particularly want to exercise but do want positive reinforcement for walking an extra flight of stairs.
Michael Sippey, vice president of product at Twitter, pointed out that if you're legitimately exercising, say going for a run, you tend to be aware of the fact.
These things only become powerful once we "make that shift to tell you things you didn't know about yourself," he said.
One of the best examples so far of deriving new insights from existing data is Google Now, the Internet giant's answer to Apple's Siri. It's a personal digital assistant available on the Android smartphone operating system that crunches signals like your whereabouts, calendar entries, searches and other clues into potentially useful alerts.
For instance, if your Google calendar shows you have a 9 a.m. appointment in San Jose, your phone GPS indicates you're still in San Francisco at 7:30 a.m., and Google Maps highlights that Highway 101 is a parking lot, Google Now might deliver a reminder that it's time to get moving.
It's automatically processing disparate contextual clues into useful information and delivering it without any active request on the part of the user.
That's a big shift. And Intel's Rattner said that as we carry around or wear more "hard sensors" like cameras, accelerometers and biomonitors, and interact with more "soft sensors" like calendars and searches, we'll see far more powerful examples of what can be achieved.
It can add up to huge data feeds for powerful artificial intelligence software that can increasingly process information and act on our behalf: rescheduling meetings, making dinner reservations, booking travel, spotting early signs of disease and delivering increasingly accurate recommendations on music, movies, books, bars, restaurants and more.
Of course, there are also big questions surrounding this stuff. Funneling your location, social interactions, health information and other personal details through the servers of mega-corporations raises obvious privacy and security issues -- even discounting the recent revelations about the US government's ability to pry.
There's also a legitimate question over whether people really want technology to become an even more pervasive presence in their lives. It seems a growing number of people I know, including fellow tech writers, are putting themselves on tech diets, limiting their hours of use and setting aside specific times to unplug.
It's hard to square those concerns with Google's suggestion that we'll all want to wear the Internet on our faces. At this point, there's also a social price to be paid for wearing Google Glass around, even in the generally tech-friendly Bay Area.
"The social awkwardness of wearing these 24/7 is real," Vassallo said.
But as always, it might just be a question of hitting on the right use case and the right form factor. Apple is widely rumored to be developing its wearable technology in the form of a watch, for which there's already a well-paved path of social acceptance.
The four members of that afternoon panel were asked whether they thought the Cupertino tech giant would deliver such a product in the next 12 months, and each answered that they thought it would -- or hoped so.
(c) 2013 Hearst Communications Inc.
Biostamp: A Temporary Computer that Sticks on Your Skin
De Zeen Magazine
(March 28, 2013) -- Materials scientist John Rogers and his firm MC10 have developed flexible electronic circuits that stick directly to the skin like temporary tattoos and monitor the wearer's health.
The Biostamp is a thin electronic mesh that stretches with the skin and monitors temperature, hydration and strain.
Rogers suggests that his "epidermal electronics" could be developed for use in healthcare to monitor patients without tethering them to large machines. Not only would this be more convenient, but the results could be more accurate if patients were examined in their normal environment doing usual activities rather than on the hospital ward.
Other applications could include a patch that lets an athlete know when and how much to hydrate for peak performance, or one that tells you when to apply more suncream.
MC10 overcame the rigidity of normal electronic components made from brittle silicon-based wafers by printing them in very small pieces, arranged in wavy patterns.
Earlier versions were applied on an elastomer backing patch, but the latest prototype is applied directly to the skin using a rubber stamp. It can be covered with spray-on bandage available from pharmacies to make it more durable and waterproof enough to withstand sweating or washing with soapy water. It lasts up to two weeks before the skin's natural exfoliation causes it to come away.
The team are now working on the integration of wireless power sources and communication systems to relay the information gathered to a smartphone.
Other wearable monitoring technology we've reported on includes the Nike+ FuelBand and Jawbone UP wristbands that monotor health and fitness, plus a wearable camera that uses sensors and GPS technology to decide which moments of your life are worth photographing.
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