Explaining Wearable Technology: Opportunities and Challenges

Wearables that tick the boxes for fitness-tracking, disease-prevention, and exercising with style

By Alice Chuck

Wearable technology, or “wearables” for short, are technological devices that can be worn as accessories, sportswear, or even skin tattoos, serving health, aesthetic, and entertainment purposes. From fitness-tracking smartwatches, to smart yoga pants that guide your movements using internal sensors, to smart jewelry equipped with heart rate monitors, wearables have taken the world by storm in the past decade.

The market power of wearables should not be overlooked: according to Strategy Analysis, Apple sold a staggering 20.7 million units of its Apple Watch in 2019, exceeding the 21.1. million sales of traditional analog Swiss timepieces. The global market size of wearables was valued at US$32.6 billion in 2019, and was projected to expand 15.9% annually from 2020-27. The incredible potential of this market has led to multiple avant-garde applications of this technology. Many of them may still be far from mainstream adoption by consumers, but these unusual new products can provide insights into how we might interact with wearables in the immediate future.

Smart jewelry: accessories with pragmatism

Smart jewelry is a unique niche at the intersection of fashion and technology which includes smart rings, necklaces, bracelets, and more. However, functional jewelry isn’t a new concept – in fact, it’s believed that the abacus ring in the 17th century was the first smart ring in existence.

Picture a calculator shrunk to fit on a thumb ring, with beads that can be moved around using pins. It sounds far-fetched and hard to use, but in fact, the abacus ring offered great convenience to Qing merchants who needed to perform quick calculations. Even today, the 300-year old silver Zhusuan abacus ring still works beautifully.

Multiple health technology companies including Oura and Joule have been pumping out accessories which tick the box for both aesthetics and fitness-tracking. These include the Oura Smart Ring, released in 2013, and the upcoming Joule Earring Backing.

The Oura Smart Ring, made of a ceramic compound called Zirconia, has the ability to analyze the user’s activity levels during daytime, sleep quality at night, and daily readiness – the capacity to perform at their mental and physical best. The score of each item is displayed in the Oura App.

Oura is equipped with a multitude of sensors: the NTC Body Temperature Sensor measures temperature directly from skin instead of environmental estimations, the infrared LED sensors calculate heart rate through taking the pulse from arteries rather than wrist capillaries, and  accelerometers in the device record daily active calorie burn, even those burned from doing tiresome household chores.

More to the point, Oura’s technology isn’t just talk. The accuracy of its data was validated by the Finnish Occupational Health Institute, which stated that Oura’s performance in measuring resting heart rate and heart rate variability has a 99% correlation with a medical-grade electrocardiogram (ECG).

Major jewelry brand Swarovski has also joined the party with the Misfit Swarovski Shine, a crystal pendant for sleep tracking. Diamonds have long been a classic jewelry choice, but with interest in wellbeing and health tracking on the rise globally, Swarovski has seized the moment to develop products that are both fashionable and functional.

Smart jewelry is a blooming area with great potential. According to WiseGuy Reports, the global market for smart rings in 2018 was reported to be US$9 million, and estimated to reach US$55 million by 2025. Without the need to compromise fashion for health goals, these high-end wearable are gaining traction among U.S., European, and Chinese customers.

Smart yoga pants using haptic feedback

Using patented tech developed by New York City-based fashion-tech company Wearable X, the Nadi X yoga pants have haptic sensors sewn into the nylon layers at the hips, knees, and ankles, which release vibrations to remind the user where to focus or exert force. The pants take data from five points on the body to detect which position the user is in.

The smart pants “communicate” with the Nadi X phone app via Bluetooth after activating a retractable pulse attached behind the left knee. The pulse not only contains a rechargeable battery that powers up the vibration panels for up to 90 minutes, but also a MEMS (micro-electro mechanical system) accelerometer to evaluate the impact of the yoga poses.

The various features of the smart yoga pants – like the intensity of the vibrations – can be modified using the app, and additional features like classes, target-setting, and progress-tracking are also available through the app.

Additionally, in the famous words of Edna Mode from The Incredibles (2005), the pants are “… machine washable, darling. That’s a new feature.”

Will these smart pants put traditional yoga classes out of business? It’s highly doubtful. Both services target different customers needs: traditional yoga classes involve more interaction and a sense of community. Smarts pants cater more to individual needs and are useful for people who cannot attend regular yoga sessions.

Rather than acting as a replacement for yoga classes, smart pants may instead augment group classes by solving some common issues – among them, the lack of personal guidance due to large class sizes, and limited class time.

Intelligent bras: A key to preventing breast cancer

Fitness-tracking is one thing, but preventing disease is another. According to WHO data from January 2021, breast cancer made up 12% of new cancer cases worldwide.

The most effective screening method for breast cancer is the mammogram, but it’s eye-wateringly expensive in most developing countries. Knowing this, college students from EPFL (the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) Hugo Vuillet, Fatemeh Ghadamieh, Samet Hana, and Jules Pochon, created the SmartBra, a bra that purportedly uses ultrasound waves to detect breast cancer.

The SmartBra releases non-invasive ultrasound waves to perform echography scans and detect cancerous cells. The ultrasound waves are generated by internal ultrasonic emitters and piezoelectric sensors within the SmartBra. Piezoelectric sensors detect and measure the electricity generated when some materials are placed under pressure. When a mass of cancerous cells is detected, the SmartBra will alert the wearer to schedule a medical appointment.

While perhaps not a bra for everyday use, the SmartBra is reportedly comfortable to wear, and its creators aim to sell it at an affordable price.

Right now, the creators’ business partner IcosaMed is amassing the funds for further development and market launch. Given the degree of frequency of breast cancer, the SmartBra is a timely and relevant invention. IcosaMed Founder and CEO Max Boysset anticipates further upgrades to the SmartBra, including the ability for it to emit low dosages of ultrasound waves continuously, stimulating the self-destruction of cancer cells.

Wearable tech for expectant mothers

Research and development into wearable tech has long been male-dominated, and received criticism for ignoring female biological characteristics. However, this convention is being turned on its head with the slow rise of femtech, which designs digital products focusing on women’s health. Femtech is now branching out into unexplored avenues.

Period-tracking features, for example, have been around for a while, but pregnancy tracking is now picking up speed in the wearable space. Period-tracking began integrating into the smart watches and brooches of wearable brands like Fitbit, Bellabeat, and Xiaomi in 2018. Today, Garmin Ltd., a U.S.-based tech company, is adding pregnancy-tracking functions to some of its smart watches, like the Garmin Venu in 2019 and the upcoming Vivoactive 4 in 2021.

By setting up “Pregnant” under “Menstrual Cycles” in Garmin’s Connect IQ app, any training programs will be automatically be suspended, and trimester counting will initiate. Expectant mothers can log daily symptoms including nausea, dizziness, baby movements, and blood glucose levels into their watches. This information comes in handy when doing medical check-ups.

Later in the pregnancy, users can avail other features including customized advice on nutrition, Kegel exercises, and weight gain, depending on the trimester. These smartwatches will also feature a contraction timer app to measure the duration and frequency of contractions.

Garmin adapts optical science for precision readings: the watch projects a non-invasive optical green light on the surface of the skin, and employs a photodiode to calculate heart rate based on the reflectivity of haemoglobin. When the heart contracts, haemoglobin increases in density and absorbs more green light; and vice versa during expansion. Garmin also utilizes green, red, and infrared wavelength light sensors to measure the oxygen density in blood.

To ensure data accuracy, Garmin has adapted its proprietary “G-sensor” technology to filter out signal noises and interference caused by posture shifts, sweating, or fluctuations in temperature.

Smartphones, smart cars, smart TVs, smart lights, smart glasses – it’s not difficult to form a list of the connected devices in our homes and on our bodies. In the next few decades, the Internet of Things will keep evolving, and the list of wearable technologies will keep expanding. Serving multiple functions while remaining comfortable and stylish, wearable tech is on track to grow even more popular with the younger generations for encapsulating the essence of a modern, progressive, and à la mode lifestyle.

Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko from Pexels

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