A runner hits the path at Green Lake. She’s dressed like all the other runners, but something is different. She’s not just running. She’s collecting data. A voice in her ear suggests her heel strike is too forceful or her stride too choppy. Later, after downloading the data from her run, she learns about exercises that will improve her regimen.
And she owes it all to her socks.
The future is now — and we are wearing it. Most people think of “wearable technology” and they envision Google Glass. But the next wave of wearable tech is about sensors on our bodies or in our clothing gathering data and feeding bits of information to a smartphone app. These data give the user clear direction on how to change behavior to optimize one’s performance or improve one’s health. It is the key component of the so-called Quantified Self — a movement dedicated to self-monitoring in the interest of greater personal awareness and well-being.
Tech-rich cities like Seattle are havens for Quantified Selfies and, by logical extension, the entrepreneurs who cater to them. Last fall, Alex Day, program manager at RTneuro Inc., a Seattle company that’s developing a low-cost wearable biosensor called Rainbow, organized the first Seattle Wearable Tech and Biohacking Meetup Group (meetup.com), better known as SEAWear. Within six months, the group had more than 150 members.
Day is personally interested in sleep optimization. “I want to operate at a higher level,” he explains. “The wearable thing is about not having to touch things, but to gather data and optimize. I want to optimize my self. Wearable tech can get me there.”
Eric Jain, a Seattle-based entrepreneur, has developed an online service, Zenobase (zenobase.com), which lets people draw conclusions or insights from the data they collect with their wearable devices. “For example,” Jain says, “if I stop drinking coffee in the morning, will that help improve my sleep? These self-experiments can be very simple with wearable devices. Sometimes, an answer is blindingly obvious with the data.” here is no shortage of firms eager to provide those answers. At January’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, 40 percent of exhibitor floor space was devoted to wearable tech health and wellness monitoring. One report projects wearables as a $6 billion industry by 2016. Others find even that number conservative.
What is undisputed is that the Puget Sound region has a growing presence in wearable tech development, from established design firms like Synapse, which helped design Nike’s FuelBand activity tracker, to fledgling startups like RTneuro to cutting-edge researchers at the University of Washington like the Xu Group Lab.
One of the area’s more unabashed evangelists for wearable tech, Day sees the Northwest as distinctly different from a place like Silicon Valley, generally considered the epicenter of tech innovation. “In San Francisco,” he observes, “many seem to approach building and joining new ventures like dogs chasing cars. Here, it’s a tighter community.”
Like the popular FuelBand and Fitbit activity trackers, much of the first wave of earable tech has centered on health and fitness. Redmond-based Heapsylon is one such entrant in the wearable tech space. Its proprietary textile sensor technology is embedded in soft, washable garments sold under the Sensoria label. A sports bra and men’s and women’s sleeveless T-shirts (with connections to portable heart rate monitors) are already available, along with “smart socks” that connect to an electronic anklet that snaps onto the cuff of one of the socks.
The socks may be a game changer, particularly for runners. E-textile sensors send data about heel strike, pronation and stride length to an app. The app can deliver suggestions in real time, via Bluetooth, to the runner. “Seventy percent of runners get injured every year,” notes Maurizio Macagno, Heapsylon’s vice president of development. “With this technology, we can study things and prevent many of these injuries.”
Of course, the technology extends to other activities: Golfers, for example, will be able to see how they shift their balance during a swing and correct it for a better performance. “The garment is the next computer,” asserts Heapsylon CEO Davide Vigiano. “In the not distant future, a considerable amount of the clothing being worn will be ‘smart.’”
Toward that end, scientists in Professor Xiaodong Xu’s research group in the department of physics and the department of materials science and engineering at the UW recently built the thinnest possible light-emitting diodes (LEDs). “These are 10,000 times smaller than the thickness of a human hair, yet the light they emit can be seen by standard measurement equipment,” says graduate student Jason Ross. “This is a huge leap for miniaturization of technology.”
Xu adds: “Such thin and foldable LEDs are critical for future portable and integrated electronic devices.”
Miniaturization is indeed the shiny coin of this realm. At Google, UW professors Babak Parviz and Brian Otis have been making waves with Google’s recent announcement of a smart contact lens that measures glucose levels in human tears. Parviz, one of the project leaders on Google Glass, and Otis aim to help the 382 million diabetics who have to prick their fingers to take blood samples multiple times a day. The lens has a tiny glucose sensor and a wireless transmitter that will send a message to the wearer’s smartphone or other device to indicate changes in glucose levels.
“Over the years, many scientists have investigated various body fluids such as tears in the hopes of finding an easier way for people to track their glucose levels,” Parviz and Otis say in a Google blog posting. “We wondered if miniaturized electronics — think: chips and sensors so small they look like bits of glitter, and an antenna thinner than a human hair — might be a way to crack the mystery of tear glucose and measure it with greater accuracy.”
Seattle-based product design firm Artefact is looking at health care applications as well with Dialog, a wearable monitor for people with epilepsy. And it also sees pportunities in devices that power secure services and connect with others in the community. It’s working on a “wallet on your wrist” that will replace traditional wallets and credit cards, and, for outdoors enthusiasts, a smart watch that can recognize context and send relevant data without being distracting. If you’re skiing, for example, you’ll get a snow report; if sailing, you’ll get wind speeds and tide charts.
“We want wearables to keep you in the moment,” says Artefact’s Emilia Palaveeva, “without things like push notifications from Facebook or Twitter or email.”
That alone may be the biggest contribution of wearable tech.
With products like Xbox Fitness, the Bing Health & Fitness app and the HealthVault online storage service, Microsoft looms large as a natural player in the wearable tech field.
To date, no such product has surfaced. But Microsoft is intrigued. Last year, a blog devoted to efforts at Microsoft Research talked about a team working in the area of affective computing: “designing systems — some including wearable computing devices — that attempt to identify your mood and react accordingly, in order to help you reflect on your own state.”
In other words, someday, when you’re about to blow a gasket, a Microsoft sensor may come to the rescue and gently talk you off the ledge.
“We’re looking at how technology can play a part in how people think,” says Kim Lowe, editor in chief of Health and Wellness Media at msn.com. “The ultimate thing for Microsoft is to find out all the different pockets of what people are doing and bring them together.”