Wearables – technology that adorns our bodies, typically for health or fitness – have really taken off. Some 33 million pieces of wearable tech will ship this year, and that number is expected to grow exponentially in the next five years. And that’s just the beginning.
Just look at the Apple Watch. There’s no doubt that we are on the verge of a new era when a pricey, untested gizmo gets about 1 million pre-orders the first weekend, with a likely wait until June or July.
Wearables are more than fun tech toys — research shows that just wearing a device encourages more activity. Schoolteacher and mother of two Sarah Ciccarello lost 18 pounds by pacing her hallway for hours, counting off her steps through her Fitbit.
"I've only been able to successfully lose maybe a few pounds before … and it's happening much quicker and at a steady pace. I have been losing a pound a week.” Ciccarallo says. "Without the Fitbit I couldn't figure out how to change my eating habits and my exercise habits.”
It’s stories like hers that have everyone from doctors and nutritionists to health coaches and personal trainers plotting a future with wearables. Already 86 percent of doctors believe wearable and mobile devices will form a key part of managing patients' health over the next five years, according to a report from PricewaterhouseCoopers.
Here’s a look at five coming trends in wearables.
1. Smart devices for health conditions.
There’s lots of tech in development to track health data and make it easier to manage chronic conditions. Several wearable gadgets from Fitbit, Jawbone, Basis, and others already monitor sleep patterns and can be helpful in ferreting out sleep problems. You can program alarms on some and use them as medicine reminders too.
But the fun really starts when devices can take the drudgery — and sometimes, the needles — out of managing your health, like smart contacts lenses that monitor blood sugar for people with diabetes.
"Many people I’ve talked to say managing their diabetes is like having a part-time job," write Brian Otis and Babak Parviz, the Novartis-Google project co-founders. The project aims to insert barely visible sensors in a lens to track the glucose levels in tears, hopefully with greater accuracy than the usual tests that demand pricks and blood each time.
Other interesting devices in the works include the ADAM patch for people with asthma by Health Care Originals, the Quell nerve-stimulating wearable for chronic pain by NeuroMetrix Inc., and wearable blood pressure devices like H2 by CharmCare.
2. Clothes that know.
Say you have a heart condition that needs constant monitoring. Going for a hike out of cell phone range could prove fatal, but imagine if you had a shirt with conductive fibers that boosted a cell connection like a wearable antenna, and that could track your heartbeat, your body temperature or your muscle reactions. The shirt could be programmed so that if your heart races, your shirt makes an emergency call on your behalf.
The military has been particularly keen on this kind of wearable tech known as e-textiles or smart textiles, to reduce soldiers’ gear load and make them more nimble. According to the Grand View Research market research firm, "The global smart textiles market was valued at USD 289.5 million in 2012." The U.S. makes up almost half.
A recent edition of the peer-reviewed journal Sensors rounded up a host of potential projects. A device that looks like a bra could monitor lung output. A glove could measure grip strength. The ideas seem limitless.
3. More data for research and cures.
Access to more people and better data can help researchers help us all. Apple HealthKit and ResearchKit work with the watch and other devices so third parties can build apps that utilize the information wearables can track, or people can self-report via an app.
Say you're studying Parkinson’s disease. Usually a researcher posts a flier, circulates an email, and hopes for the best. With an app, researchers can reach thousands of people, which hopefully will lead to more accurate studies and better outcomes.
It’s already proving to be a powerful recruiting tool. One University of Pennsylvania researcher reported sending 60,000 notices to get 351 participants for a study about exercise among breast cancer survivors. Using a new app, in less than a month, she had 2,000 people. At Stanford University, researchers signed up some 11,000 people for a cardiovascular study within 24 hours of launching.
Device data is already providing interesting results. With millions of people using sleep sensors by Jawbone and Fitbit, it’s like a giant worldwide sleep study. Jawbone researchers know that people in New York have very different sleep patterns on weekends and weekdays, and that people observing Ramadan often slow down and take naps during the daytime because they are fasting.
4. Bigger, better support networks.
When trying to lose weight or stay healthy, support is key. And devices can expand our support networks in ways we never could before. That’s a good thing — Northwestern University researchers found that online diet trackers lost more weight when they had larger online support networks.
Some devices have their own communities so users can chat and compete together. Some also sync with your Facebook or Twitter pages, so friends can see your progress and send cheers.
Ciccarello’s Fitbit lay dormant for almost two years until she decided she needed to make changes after her second child was born. Today, she and friends from across the country challenge each other via the MyFitnessPal.com app, which syncs with various mobile devices to track food and workouts.
“It's very motivating to have your friends see how much you are walking and be able to talk to them about what you're doing that day,” she says. On nights she’d rather stay couch-bound, she considers her online data charts – and what her friends will say when her numbers dip.
5. Plugged-in doctors
Once a year, 15 to 30 minutes – that’s how long a doctor may have to spend on a patient’s annual physical. If patients could simply hand over a data file with graphs of their vital information over the past few months, it could save time – and be more accurate than your memory.
Ted Vickey is a certified trainer who ran the White House Athletic Center for three presidents. He thinks devices can be a great way to stay connected with your health team.
"When you take your car in to the mechanic, he plugs the car in (for diagnostics)," Vickey says. "I can see us doing that with our doctor."
Doctors and patients wish they could share more information in between visits as well. That way doctors know what’s really happening with their patients, and patients get better care and follow-up.
"The doctor says lose 10 pounds, stop smoking,” Vickey says. “A year later, it's ‘lose 20 pounds,’ and you don’t talk in between. What if the doctor could send email alerts, or monitor activity from a distance?”
The fantasy involves doctors and patients buying in, and of course, software developed to share the data securely. That’s all coming, it’s just a matter of when.
Tech has streamlined our work, our entertainment, our travel. Health is the next frontier, and wearables sit where tech and personal health meet. No wonder so many people in health care are excited about wearables.
Editor: Deepi Brar