Health-watch on the move

Wearable technologies spread their remit

By Jewel Thomas

Some wearable electronic devices such as hearing aids, performance monitors (for measuring activity, heart rate, etc.) and headsets have been around for a while. Other electronic wearables are now widely found in the social, health, wellness and medical domains in guises such as smart glasses, smart watches and glucose monitoring and drug delivery devices. Most rely on IEC International Standards to operate reliably and safely.

The Mimo baby grow paired with the Mimo turtle monitors respiration, skin temperature, body position, and activity level (Photo: Rest Devices) The Mimo baby grow paired with the Mimo turtle monitors respiration, skin temperature, body position, and activity level (Photo: Rest Devices)

From being able to self-monitor one’s fitness activities, weight and number of calories burned, sleep, blood pressure, heart rate, glucose level and medication to facilitating business matters or enhancing entertainment experiences, wearable technologies are increasingly becoming a part of our lives. Usually worn on or near the body or occasionally inserted in it, many wearables aim to improve one’s health. Today these devices include digitally connected jewellery such as smart bracelets and watches, contact lenses and eye glasses that connect to the Internet and hearing aids, fabrics and tattoos that can conduct electricity or redefine your skin.

At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, new launches included the Lumo Lift fitness tracker, a small magnetic sensor device that clips onto one’s shirt and the June bracelet, which warns consumers when they need to cover up, add sun cream or wear sunglasses. Also unveiled was the USD 199Mimo babygrow created by MIT graduates. Available since February 2014, it has a sensor attached and enables parents to monitor their baby’s breathing, temperature, position and sleep pattern on their mobile phones through a smartphone app.

Encouraging prospects

In a 2012 global report on wearable technologies, Jody Ranck points out that a decade ago, "wearable computing failed to produce any notable success stories on the consumer front, but advances in materials sciences, battery power, augmented reality and chip evolution have made the possibilities for wearables grow rapidly". Consequently, while they were initially employed in military applications, wearable devices are gradually entering the mainstream consumer field.

According to Dr Joseph Kvedar of the Center for Connected Health at Partners Healthcare, the most popular digital self-tracking health related devices interest about 5% of the population. This group of early users "is the beachhead now for adoption and that’s a big enough market that it gets people’s attention", he says.

Fitness and wellness top the bill

Currently the fitness and wellness sector is one of the biggest adopters of wearables. Some lightweight devices using electronic sensors have been developed to track blows to the head in certain sports and to alert if a potentially dangerous impact to the head occurs.

Although personal, most of these devices enable users to connect to a web site or smart phone app, communicate with communities or access information sharing functions. Data can be viewed and managed on users' mobile phones or computers. For many specialists, a key feature of such wearables is the adoption of Bluetooth 4.0 as a wireless connectivity standard because it uses less power than other methods and pairs with devices easily.

The global market for wearable computing devices projected to reach USD 30,2 billion in 2018, according to BCC Research, with a 5-year CAGR (compound annual growth rate) of 43,4%. ABI Research estimates that the market for wearables in the sports and health sectors will be some 170 million devices by 2017. Their growing appeal is being confirmed too, with companies like Google, Microsoft and Apple, as well as several universities, entering this exciting market.

IEC TC (Technical Committee) 100: Audio, video and multimedia systems and equipment, has standardized methods of measurement as specified in IEC 62087, Methods of measurement for the power consumption of audio, video and related equipment, and continues to pay attention to the needs of this emerging market. IEC TC 21: Secondary cells and batteries, has also seen continued growth in portable consumer devices using various types of rechargeable lithium and nickel systems, especially those with lithium ion batteries. TC 21’s work will strive to define batteries that meet the power needs of wearable technologies.

Medical applications and possible benefits

Melissa Leffler suggested in an article published in 2013 that, if wearable technologies are licensed and become popular with users, they have the potential to change healthcare significantly. Medical device entrepreneur and University of Minnesota professor Bob Connor observes some convergence of two streams of technology with “some morphing from consumer electronics to health monitoring devices”. One example is Medtronic, who have invested in the first smart ingestible tablet to be approved by the US FDA (Food and Drugs Administration) and which has been designed by digital health sensor company, Proteus Digital Health.

Early in 2014, iHealth Lab Inc, a leader in the field of mobile personal healthcare products, announced the development of three innovative wearables. These are awaiting FDA approval, but could be available in the second half of 2014. Pricing has not yet been announced. They are the industry’s first wearable, mobile-enabled ambulatory blood pressure monitor which connects to a user’s mobile device via Bluetooth or to a PC through a USB cable; a lightweight, wearable mobile-enabled wireless ambulatory electrocardiogram designed for 24-hour continuous monitoring; and a new mobile-enabled wearable pulse oximeter designed for continuous monitoring for up to 12 hours. One application is to allow users at home to share information with medical professionals and caregivers in other locations. Hopefully the products will also be affordable for those most likely to benefit from them.

Other developments

Wearable technologies in the medical domain that incorporate real-time monitoring and can detect falls include a tactile 'finding' vest for the blind that communicates directions via vibrations on the user’s triceps; an FDA-approved Sound Bite Hearing System that is based on bone conduction, is worn in the mouth and is designed for sufferers of single-sided hearing loss; and the SurroSense Rx from Orpyx, a self-monitoring device for diabetics with neuropathy who cannot feel pain, for instance when damage is being caused to the feet. In the US the FDA is focusing solely on applications that turn mobile devices into medical devices.

As the numbers of the elderly in populations continue to increase, and to meet the needs of people with various disabilities, TC 100 has established a project on AAL (Ambient Assisted Living) for AV (audio visual) and multimedia systems and equipment. A survey of AAL use cases has been conducted in order to evaluate the existing accessibility barriers and develop proposals for new technologies to overcome these. To ensure user groups could input directly, collaboration was set up with organizations such as the European Blind Union. For its part, in 2011, IEC SMB (Standardization Management Board) established SG (Strategy Group) 5: Ambient Assisted Living, "to manage and coordinate AAL standardization work in IEC TCs, to establish and achieve interoperability and interconnectivity of AAL systems and accessible design of their user interface". In February 2014 SG 5 was disbanded and a SEG (Systems Evaluation Group) on AAL was created.

IEC TC 110 is working on standards that are required for all aspects of flat panel display devices, especially concerning harmonization efforts. TC 100 and Technical Areas such as TA 14, which standardizes specifications for audio, video and multimedia systems and equipment, are also taking into account the convergence of digital technology from diverse industries. This demands interoperability between the consumer and professional marketplaces.

Wearables in the workplace?

Fitness wearables may be used to help employees improve their wellness and fitness at work, sometimes with the encouragement of their companies. In Japan, AIST (National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology) is developing augmented-reality wearables to allow off-site experts to share insights and experience in challenging work environments with new workers and those in other industries. However, as the fields of mobility, cloud and big data converge, concerns over privacy, safety and security issues also rise. Such technologies thus also call for closer scrutiny from government agencies, specialized bodies and users.

Future trends

Analysts like Ranck see a need to redevelop the mobile phone as it becomes the hub for a growing array of wellness, fitness and health monitors and trackers. Other major growth areas for wearables could well be in the gaming and entertainment arenas and the fashion industry.

In a rapidly evolving personal mobile wearables market that demands high reliability, small sensors, microelectromechanical devices and highly integrated semiconductor devices, new and greater numbers of International Standards will be needed that continue to incorporate environmentally sound practices. IEC TC 47: Semiconductor devices, and SC (Sub-Committee) 47E: Discrete semiconductor devices, are best positioned to play important and proactive roles in this field as it also develops liaisons with other related IEC TCs and ISO such as ISO/IEC JTC1/SC6: Telecommunications and information exchange between systems, thereby allowing technologies to converge in the future.

The Mimo baby grow paired with the Mimo turtle monitors respiration, skin temperature, body position, and activity level (Photo: Rest Devices) The Mimo baby grow paired with the Mimo turtle monitors respiration, skin temperature, body position, and activity level (Photo: Rest Devices)
Bluetooth-enabled glucose monitor and oximeter (Photo: iHealth) Bluetooth-enabled glucose monitor and oximeter (Photo: iHealth)
Smart glasses are expected to have many applications in healthcare Smart glasses are expected to have many applications in healthcare