We’re stepping into an era where Quantified Self is becoming a global norm. Wearables, trackers and sensors are coming in more and more shapes and form factors, and as of now we do have accurate tracking devices. But the final frontier is yet to be arrived at with biohacking.
Wearables are being designed to be less obtrusive, yet more personal. Data that is collected needs to be free of impurities or noise, and yet must not hinder the subject. The onus is now shifting towards mere data collection, to collecting the data without the user being burdened or compromised by the presence of a tracking device.
And that is where we discuss the future of Quantified Self as far as Wearables are concerned. In this article, I talk about what are the advancements that are being made in the field, and what kind of trackers we can hope to see in the near future.
THE WEARABLE MARKET: OVERVIEW
The Wearable market is something that we’ve discussed for quite some time now, but for the sake of understanding the true essence of this article, it is crucial that we gain a perspective of the existing market and the trends which may follow in the near future.
The above graph shows the state of things from 2012, estimated right up to 2018. The Wearable device market value, and the technology market value is expected to increase to staggering figures, with 2018 estimates landing at $12.6 billion and $8.3 billion, from just $7.14 and $4.13 in 2015. That’s almost a 70% increase!
Another facet I would like to highlight here is the forecast regarding the wearable device shipments, on the basis of the type of wearable. This might not seem very significant right now, but we’ll be talking about the future of wearables which will radically alter the types of wearables that are popular today.
All in all, we can easily gather that the wearable market is expected to grow by leaps and bounds in the coming years.
Wearables by themselves are pretty popular in the form of non obtrusive (to some extent) headbands and wrist bands, and although they do get the job done as far as recording the data is concerned, once the user removes the band, the wearable (and ergo, the process of data collection), is rendered useless.
The need is for more powerful and sophisticated tracking equipment, which will be capable of recording data without ever disturbing or hindering the user. And not just data, vital statistics which might be crucial to gain a perspective on one’s health can also be gathered in this way.
This is something which I found quite interesting, personally. A startup called Chaotic Moon has an innovative take on how to make wearables more personal, and yet less obtrusive: through tech tattoos.
The underlying philosophy is pretty straightforward: the company is combining the aesthetics of tattoos, the increased personal nature and the need to develop less obtrusive wearables with the entire concept of self tracking. The Tech Tats developed are mainly temporary tattoos that have electronic components within them, which can be affixed to the skin.
The components comprise of an ATiny85 microcontroller, which receives the data from temperature sensors present on the tattoo. The conducting medium is not wiring, but electroconductive paint, which is in itself quite an unusual – and brilliant – feat. Chaotic Moon is in essence, laying out a circuit board on the user’s skin, and although it is slightly more protrusive than a regular tattoo, it does bridge the divide between the wearable and the wearer.
So what kind of data can be tracked through the tech tattoos? The Tech Tats contain a slew of biosensors which monitor vital statistics such as heart rate, blood pressure and body temperature. Also, there’s an added advantage of the tattoo being placed anywhere on the body, not just the wrist. Which means that one can get personalised and probably more accurate readings depending on the location of placement of the Tech Tat.
Again, like almost all wearables out there, the Tech Tat has a dedicated application for it, which will enable users to keep track of their vital statistics. The mode of transmission in this case is Bluetooth Low Energy – which is being seen in a wide variety of wearable devices nowadays, including the low cost Mi Band fitness tracker.
Now forget the Quantified Self for a moment, and let’s just appreciate the innovation that a simple concept of a Tech Tattoo can bring. It isn’t quite different from attaching a hidden microphone to a person, but a concept such as a tattoo, on your skin, conducting electricity from a minuscule power source, with sensors and a microcontroller to boot – how cool is that?
And the scope of this is endless. For starters, how about we attach an NFC Tag to the Tattoo, which will enable people to make payments with a simple flick of the finger. This would essentially imply that the data is being stored on the skin, and the bridging device is eliminated.
In fact, people are also developing wearable health patches, which involve cutting pieces of metal out, using polymer adhesives and printing out electronic circuit boards onto the adhesive layer. This would actually enable doctors to closely monitor their patients’ statistics, such as muscle activity or heart rate.
I believe that innovations such as the Tech Tat can enable users to effectively bridge the divide between their digital and physical selves, and in turn enhance their own Quantified Self!
THE NEXT STEP
As far as tattoos are considered, obstacles in the path of the quick realisation would have to include factors such as the resistance of the dermal layer to effective conduction, or the wearing out of the conducting material used to manufacture the tattoos.
These probably can be minor hurdles once the overall potential of wearable biohacking tools in the form of tattoos are considered. Day to day activities will become more streamlined, and the wearer of the tattoo can enjoy a natural state without having to compromise on body movements – even slightly.
But move beyond tattoos, and there are quite a few other interesting innovations out there. Google is just one of the organisations that is actively developing devices which will make it easier and more efficient to monitor vital body statistics, and that spells out more potential for the Quantified Self movement in general.
SMART CONTACT LENSES
Looking quite similar to the smart contact lenses straight out of a spy flick (I swear to God, I saw a similar lens in Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation!), the smart contact lens that is being developed by Google is quite the monitoring device in itself. The contact lens monitors blood sugar levels for patients suffering from diabetes.
The components of the smart contact lens primarily include a glucose level sensor, which analyses the tears lubricating the eye. Other components include a wireless sensor, which can help in syncing the data between the lens and a smartphone application, and a few tiny LEDs. The LEDs can alert the user in real time regarding the glucose levels.
While still in its infancy stage, innovations such as the smart contact lens can effectively help people suffering from diabetes. I know quite a few people who rely on glucometers and the system of needle-pricks and blood collection on glucometer strips. This method is now getting outdated, and isn’t the most reliable one out there, specifically for the elderly.
Google’s methodology makes use of the tears within the eye, which – like blood – give accurate readings of the blood glucose levels within the body. If developed further, devices such as these could essentially pave the way for a more Quantified Self as far as data readings are concerned.
Again, targeting the people suffering from diabetes, Google has been developing another kind of glucose level monitor in partnership with DexCom – a manufacturer of continuous glucose monitoring systems. The concept is that of a bandage sized sensor – that is connected to the cloud, no less – which will help people monitor their blood glucose levels.
Although not much information has been revealed in this regard, except the financial aspects of the partnership, we’re seeing a common trend here: eliminating the need of a needle to suck out blood for glucose testing. This is all the more confirmed in the next innovation from Google.
NEEDLE FREE BLOOD DRAW
Just recently, Google filed a patent for a smartwatch which could draw out a small sample of blood without the need of a needle. This would increase the automation in the process of blood collection, and would also reduce the complications involved in pricking the skin and drawing out a sample to test for the insulin levels.
According to the patent, the process is pretty complex. But here’s a gist: Somewhat like a gunshot, an abrupt surge of gas releases a microparticle from the barrel into the skin, which in turn sucks the blood out through the puncture created.
Critics might argue, saying that a puncture was ultimately made on the skin. But the way I see it, the need for a needle has been minimised. Moreover, the presence of such a device on a wearable wrist band which can automate the entire process would actually be more effective and efficient in the long run as far as monitoring the glucose levels are considered.
BONUS: FLEXIBLE BATTERIES
Behind all the advancements in wearable technology, one thing has to be drastically improved upon: the battery! Fortunately, Samsung and LG are two companies which have been up to quite a few innovations in this regard.
The batteries can bend and conform freely as fibres, and they have outstanding energy densities too. The promise and potential in this case includes improving the battery life of wearable devices, while at the same time retaining a minimal form factor. And ultimately, innovations such as these are paving the way for more advanced wearable powering techniques!
I believe that the wearables of the near future should come with a few key factors:
1. More personal.
2. Less obtrusive.
3. More efficient.
Given the number of innovations and concepts being developed around these three points, it is highly likely that the next level of wearables will be realised very soon, and this spells out more effective self tracking and a stronger impetus to the Quantified Self movement!