Wearable computers could act like a sixth sense

Sensors adhered to skin or in t-shirts will monitor what people cant detect themselves

People will one day depend on wearable computers to monitor not just their activities but a myriad of data about their health, making the devices basically like a sixth sense.

That's the vision that was laid out during the MIT Tech Conference on disruptive technologies in Cambridge, Mass. this past weekend. The wearable computer market will see the kind of dramatic growth that the smartphone market has over the last decade and wearables will morph from Fitbit-like bracelets to patches that stick to users' skin and sensors embedded in t-shirts and sneakers.

"Humans interact with everything with our five senses,but I think our sixth sense is going to be digital," said Stanley Yang, CEO of NeuroSky Inc., a biosensor maker based in San Jose, Calif. "There's so much information out there that we don't have the natural ability to detect. There's information you need, whether it's health, fitness, learning or just playing. All of these will be digital."

While that might sound like a bold prediction, Brian Blau, an analyst with Gartner, Inc., said it's not far-fetched at all.

"Having the ability to track very personal information down to a level that we don't and can't perceive naturally is certainly going to benefit us if these technology companies can take that data and tell us something really useful," said Blau. "Simply tracking our steps is not enough. Our personal health data combined with smart algorithms are what's needed for these devices to become really useful."

The wearable computer market has been getting a lot of attention.

Everything from Google Glass, which enables users to send emails, shoot video and see maps, to smartwatches that can run apps or even act as a mobile phone, andsmart wristbands that track a user's heart rate and number of steps taken.

However, the market is just in its infancy and could be on the cusp of major changes.

Wearables are going to morph from wristbands to thin patches that adhere to the user's skin. And smart sensors will become more widespread when they're embedded in clothes, footwear and even our own bodies.

"This market is going through a state of convergence and divergence," said Carlos Rodarte, a business development advisor at PatientsLikeMe, a health data-sharing platform based in Cambridge. "I predict that 90% of all wearables on the market right now won't exist in five years."

Wearable computers, if they're going to become ubiquitous, need to be comfortable to wear and seamless to use. If users have to take them on and off, plug them in and keep them charged, they're less likely to use them to track their health information.

And there's a lot of personal health information that people could be accessing.

Wearable computers, for instance, could monitor things like a blood pressure, blood sugar levels, stress levels and heart rate. They also could feed that data directly to a doctor and alert the user if his or her blood sugar levels rise too high, for instance.

"Being able to continuously monitor all the information your body creates every day would be important," said Ben Schlatka, vice president of business development and co-founder of MC10, which focuses on designing smart devices. "If we have a way to access that data that is comfortable and not aggravating, it will open up a whole new chapter in understanding what our bodies are doing."

These sensors and wearable computers could change the way patients are monitored, as well as the way serious diseases are treated, according to Dan Olds, an analyst with The Gabriel Consulting Group.

"Over time, this could actually reduce healthcare costs by using technology to take the place of some routine monitoring and by speeding up medical response time," he added. "For patients with chronic diseases, doctors will be able to remotely view data like blood pressure, heart rate, temperature and a host of other factors. When a particular factor goes beyond where it should be, the doctor could be alerted and the patient advised to take medication or some other action. There could be a huge amount of benefit here."

At some point, those wearable devices might even administer medication to the patient -- especially for those that are implanted inside a patient's body.

While the healthcare segment will be an important market, wearable computers also will be targeted at everyone else.

Sensors embedded in t-shirts, for instance, could monitor users' heart rates, body temperature and level of hydration while they're playing tennis, going jogging or just taking a walk. Those t-shirts might even change color, alerting the wearer or a team coach that the person might be getting overheated or dehydrated.

Rob Enderle, an analyst with the Enderle Group, said there is a font of information about activity levels and health that goes unnoticed; wearables could change that.

"Health-focused wearables are improving our insight into our bodies," he said, adding that he expects them to evolve "substantially" over the next five to 10 years. "I use a Fitbit myself and it has had that impact on me already.... They are starting mostly around healthcare and exercise but will eventually expand into other areas."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

See more by Sharon Gaudin on Computerworld.com.

Read more about emerging technologies in Computerworld's Emerging Technologies Topic Center.

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