In fact, this brave new wearable-world spans stages of development, and you can buy some of the gadgets right now.
Smartwatches measure heart rate and sleep patterns – emerging apps can use this data to spot a COVID-19 infection before you do. A snug shirt can measure your vital signs continuously in real time. And a skin patch on the back of your arm can measure your glucose levels 24 hours a day, no finger pricks needed – you can see in real time how your diet impacts your blood sugar, giving you a personalized road map for how to eat.
Still others are pushing further, striving to make wearables friendly to our day-to-day lives, making them smaller, more flexible, stretchable, and even washable.
Future wearables could be “invisible,” blending into your clothes or adapting to your body, says Veena Misra, PhD, director of the ASSIST Center, funded by the National Science Foundation, which brings together researchers at North Carolina State University and partner institutions to build next-gen health wearables.
Imagine a normal-looking shirt with invisible sensors knit into the fabric, or a device so small it can hide under your fingernail – or even inside you (this is not your grandmother’s pacemaker).
“When wearables can be very thin and skin-like, they’ll be more useful and impactful,” Misra says.
That said, success is not guaranteed. Developing this technology is, to use the technical term, really hard. Even if the science comes through, many hurdles will remain on the path to clinical and commercial use. While there’s plenty of excitement around wearables, we all know a new technology’s hype does not always predict market size. (Just ask any person still wearing Google Glass, if you can find one.) And global market intelligence firm IDC reported a dip in the wearables market in the first quarter of 2022.
Despite the challenges, researchers remain dedicated to making sure that no matter what devices hold the key to our future health care, we'll wear them well.
“Big data” is positively gargantuan in health and medicine. As machine learning, artificial intelligence (AI), and data analytics evolve to harness the power of all this data, wearables are the ideal vehicles for collecting it.
These advancements are “symbiotic,” says Michael Daniele, PhD, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at North Carolina State University. “If we do the wearable right, it will deliver quality data that can then be put into the machine learning-AI-big data pipeline.” Likewise, that data is worthless without those tools to transform it into information, he says.
Unlike conventional methods – which you likely use only at doctor visits maybe once or twice a year – wearables can be donned anywhere, anytime, tracking data continuously and revealing health trends. That may help doctors “fill in the gaps” when making a diagnosis or prognosis, Daniele says. “It gives doctors another arrow in the quiver.”
You don’t drive a car around without a dashboard. I would argue it’s just as crazy to go around without a health monitor.
Michael Snyder of Stanford University, a pioneer in the field of wearables.
It also empowers you, the average human, providing you with insight into your body in real time. Continuous monitoring provides a baseline – and your baseline is unique to you – revealing problems and alerting you to adverse events.
Hence Snyder flagging his Lyme disease before he felt a thing.
“You don’t drive a car around without a dashboard,” he says. “I would argue it’s just as crazy to go around without a health monitor.”
Research shows that smartwatches with EKG can diagnose atrial fibrillation (AFib) with surprising accuracy (and some major brands already have received FDA approval for AFib features), and they may one day prove useful for flagging heart attacks as well.
Snyder and his team have pioneered an app that pairs with a smartwatch to detect infection and disease.
“We can now tell if you have COVID in 80% of cases before symptoms occur,” he says. “The median is 3 days prior to symptom onset.”
He hopes to scale this technology within 5 years, making it available to every person. “3.8 billion people have a smartphone,” he says. “All you have to do is pair that with a smartwatch, and you have a health monitor for 3.8 billion people.”
What Will Future Wearables Look Like?
Of course, before wearables can change the world, we must be willing to, you know, wear them.
That means devices that don’t scream “Hey, I have a health condition!” Convenience is also key – the less we have to manage and interact with them, the better. We feel those limits already today.
“I own an Apple watch, but the total number of hours a week I wear it is not more than 20,” says Alper Bozkurt, PhD, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at NC State. “One reason is I need to keep charging it, and I keep forgetting it on the charger. I arrive at my office and say, ‘Oh gosh, I forgot my watch.’”
Future wearables will be “wear and forget,” Bozkurt says. You just put it on and it fades into the background, no need to recharge or even really think about it.
What we’ll see:
We already have electronic watches and rings, and more smart jewelry (like earrings) will be coming. But for consumer adoption, watches and wristbands seem to have the most style appeal. And given their popularity – nearly 200 million shipped in 2021, according to tech research and consulting firm Gartner – the annual “new model” rollouts make even more marketing sense.
Still, as soft electronics advance, wrist-worn devices may become thinner, someday resembling a piece of tape wrapped around the wrist, Daniele says.
Clothes tend to be useful for applying electronics and sensors across larger areas of the body, says Jesse Jur, PhD, director of ecosystem technology at Advanced Functional Fabrics of America. For example, “an Einthoven’s triangle that can clearly get an electrocardiogram signal,” he says, referring to a standard placement of leads across your body for an EKG.
Still, monitoring may be limited for a very basic human reason, says Jur: We change our clothes.