We live in an age where technology is intertwined into almost every aspect of our lives. Perhaps the only place it hasn’t yet completely conquered is our own bodies. That may be why mainstream culture greeted certain wearable technology like Google Glass with distrust and even outright hostility—after all, once technology is on us, isn’t it only a matter of time before it’s in us, or simply is us?
But Philippe Kahn, best known as the inventor of the camera phone, and now CEO and founder of Santa Cruz-based Fullpower Technologies Inc., thinks that attitude is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. More and more consumers are embracing gadgets like FitBits, smart watches, smart beds, and even fitness-tracking smart shoes for their potential to revolutionize the fitness and health care industries. These wearables can track every aspect of daily life, from sleep patterns to steps taken to heart rate, calories burned, body weight, and time spent standing.
Meanwhile, Kahn’s company is already working on all sorts of ideas that will help usher in the next era of wearable tech. Why is he betting the industry will continue to grow? Because knowledge is power. When it comes to improving our health and lifestyles, extremely individualized data can go a long way. And when we decide to make a change and do something about it, wearable technology can provide immediate feedback on our progress.
“It’s simple and amazingly efficient,” Kahn tells GT. Wearable technology provides the kind of information that can get results fast, he says, which feeds its popularity. “Without any other changes, if Ms. and Mr. Everyone are just a little more active and sleep just a little more, health immediately improves.”
Whereas current fitness wristbands and watches collect data mainly through an accelerometer that tracks step-related movements or lack thereof, devices of the future will be able to distinguish among many different and diverse types of exercise, as well as provide data about blood sugar, hydration, hormone levels, and beyond. Additionally, whereas a current concern among wearable technology users and makers is a lack of privacy, the wearable tech of the future will use authentication techniques that are unique to every individual, such as heart rhythm.
Current wearable fitness trackers are fairly limited in the types of exercise they can track, and this is especially true if the exercise doesn’t involve taking steps. The next generation of wearable tech will not only be able to “learn” and measure new exercises performed by the wearer, it will also be able to more accurately track activities like weight lifting, swimming, and even something like playing an instrument that while usually performed stationary is nonetheless a legitimate workout for the upper body. Future fitness wearables will also be able to instantly access the wearer’s diet and medical history and even be able to “critically think” and provide advice. Smart sports gear is also just around the corner, such as a basketball that has an implanted computer and can track made baskets and provide feedback on shooting form, or a football that can help aspiring quarterbacks throw a tighter spiral.
PICTURE OF HEALTH
Exercise and sport aren’t the only frontiers for wearable technologies. They show even greater potential to improve personal health on a large scale because they provide a larger amount of more accurate data to a doctor or health care provider. As long as the patient consistently wears his or her health-and-fitness-tracking wearable technology, a doctor can easily use the data from the device to get a more accurate picture of the patient’s lifestyle. This will allow doctors to make better decisions and diagnoses than ever before. Eventually, wearable technology will allow doctors to treat patients remotely, without having to see them in person—transforming health care for travelers, those who find it difficult or impossible to visit a doctor’s office, and pretty much everyone else.
Some examples of cutting-edge health care wearable technology include body-worn sensors and contact lenses that monitor blood sugar levels and could revolutionize the care and management of diabetes, an increasingly common condition in America. Companies are also developing smart bras that track breast health, as well as wearable technology that could help a person quit smoking by detecting cravings and then releasing medication before the smoker falls off the wagon and lights up a cigarette. There is even ingestible technology being developed that is powered by stomach acid and could monitor the timing and consistency of when a person takes their medications. This could provide doctors with unprecedented information about the adherence to and effectiveness of prescribed therapies.
Wearable technology, however, is still in its infancy, or, at most, its toddlerhood. And there are plenty of growing pains.
One challenge is the drive to constantly improve the accuracy of the data these devices provide. When current wearable technology can only provide estimates on steps taken, calories burned, or anything else, it simply isn’t good enough. This can be a major problem, especially if health care providers are basing recommendations for medication, exercise, diet, and lifestyle on the accuracy of this data.
“Accuracy is important, as that is key work that Fullpower focuses on more than any other company on the planet,” says Kahn. But for most current applications of wearable technology, he believes this issue shouldn’t be overblown. “Remember that the benefits come from being more active and sleeping a little longer, not necessarily understanding every detail of everything.”
There is even wearable technology being developed that turns sound into patterns of vibration felt on the skin from a garment that, with training, can help the deaf “hear” the world around them.
At this point, there is little industry regulation and no governing body to make independent verifications of wearable technology data, and to make sure standards are upheld. Greater industry regulation with independently verified data will go a long way toward legitimizing the entire industry. “We sure hope this happens soon, as it will make Fullpower’s technology shine even more,” says Kahn. “My understanding is that there are a couple of labs who are evaluating the business opportunity.”
There is also the issue of interpretation of all this data—without it, the information is basically useless. “It’s not just quantified self-measuring, it’s using big data science to give meaningful insights,” explains Kahn. “For example, Fullpower’s new Sleeptracker® Smartbed will soon start being deployed by major bedding manufacturers and will provide lots of insights and tools to improve sleep.” Kahn says the insight the smart bed provides is based on data from more than 500 million nights of detailed recorded sleep, and calls it “the greatest sleep study ever.”
Wearable technology not only needs to be stylish, in Kahn’s view, it also needs to be at least somewhat invisible or at least seamlessly integrated into a person’s “look.” Making a one-size-fits-all product that also has universal aesthetic appeal is no small challenge. Just consider how many different companies sell widely diverse products that are all essentially either a shoe, a shirt, a hat, or anything else wearable.
“We believe that wearable tech and fashion are tied at the hip. We are focused on making non-invasive technology that is green, invisible and beautifully discreet,” says Kahn.
Battery life is another challenge. “Fullpower is working on energy harvesting off the host. It’s no different than getting solar energy to work in the home,” says Kahn. His company recently launched the Movado smartwatch that can run for over two years without a charge. Whether it’s using body heat, body movement, or some other source, renewable energy is a big part of the future of wearable technology.
As bright as the future may be for wearable fitness technology, the possibilities for merging man and machine on a larger scale may be even more astounding. For example, Lockheed Martin has developed an unpowered exoskeleton that makes heavy tools feel almost weightless, as if they are being used in zero gravity. This kind of technology could revolutionize many industries including construction, demolition, disaster cleanup, and first-responder situations. Still other exoskeletons are being used to help paraplegics regain the use of their legs and walk again. There is even wearable technology being developed that turns sound into patterns of vibration felt on the skin from a garment that, with training, can help the deaf “hear” the world around them in a similar way to how Braille turns letters and words on a page into tactile representations that allow the blind to “see.” Some people are even pushing the boundaries of our senses by implanting magnets into their fingertips in order to be able to “feel” electromagnetism.
The incredible neuroplasticity of the human brain allows for all of this remarkable technology to be seamlessly integrated into the brain’s representation of the body over time. For example, ask any experienced surfer where the body ends and they will all tell you that eventually the surfboard becomes an extension of the self. To them, the body does not end at the foot, it ends on the wave.
All of this seemingly space-age technology being closer to our doorstep than most of us thought begs the question: How much technology is too much technology? But the reality is that technology is in many ways the ultimate embodiment of everything it means to be human, showcasing our ingenuity, ambition and creativity. Wearable technology is only the latest expression of an age-old truth: We have always been natural born cyborgs, using technology to transcend ourselves and our biology.