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Wearable Technology: Fashion Meets Function

With Numerous New Category Innovations, It's Not Just For Geeks Anymore

From watches to fitness monitors to jewelry that knows when your phone is ringing, wearable technology is making a big impact this year:

  • Fitness trackers are evolving from chunky rubber loops to fashionable leather, copper and brass accessories that blend in better at the office as well as at the gym.
  • Smart jewelry turns your fingers and wrists into extensions of your electronic life. With a ring from Ringly or a bracelet from Beacon & Lively, phone calls and notifications from your phone become vibrations and light signals from fashionable accessories.
  • Ear buds are evolving, becoming wireless and gaining the ability to play music, get data from your phone and measure motion and fitness.

But it's not just about fashion statements and new toys: Those gadgets may become crucial healthcare tools, says Michael Sung, a professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and former senior researcher at the MIT Wearable Computing Group.

“There's currently a lot of hype around wearables," Sung says. "Yet we're on the cusp of using this technology in a way that's actually meaningful for people's lives. I personally think the promise of wearables rests in its potential to use long-term personal data to predict our health or even modify our behavior for the better."

From Early Heart Monitors to Diagnosing Depression

Early wearable technology began with a healthcare imperative, Sung says. As far back as the 1980s, when high-risk heart patients were strapped to portable electrocardiogram machines, the technology was invasive and required a number of electrodes that had to be attached to their chests. Heart patients might be asked to wear a digital tape recorder for 24 hours that could monitor their hearts, but they would decline because they found it cumbersome.

“My goal was to identify technology that would have the same predictive power of gold standards like EKGs, but feel less intrusive so more people would tolerate using the devices," Sung says.

As a graduate student conducting research at MIT in the 1990s, Sung turned his attention to wearable technology for long-term, predictive healthcare applications. One study focused on protecting Army Rangers from frostbite. Since it's not possible to measure a soldier's core body temperature in the field, Sung and his colleagues put accelerometers on soldiers' torsos to measure their shivering instead. By correlating shiver patterns with body temperature, they could turn data from a wearable solution into a predictor of hypothermia.

There's just a short leap from Sung's Army experiment to something like a wearable monitor for, say, your grandmother. Imagine that she usually wakes up at 5 a.m., but one day she stays in bed until noon. Wearables already on the market might provide warning signs that something is not normal. And the next step, Sung says, might be to pick up signs of depression.

“If you think about depression, it's a fairly nebulous thing," he says. “How do you quantify or predict it? There are subjective measures. But we found two physiological markers we could measure with wearable technology. Namely motion and voice. When people are depressed, their general level of activity is lower and there are noticeable pitch variations in their voice."

Sung's work has both medical and financial implications when you consider that employers and insurers are finding new uses for health data. “We already see this with devices such as FitBit in the corporate world," he says. “Insurance companies are offering lower insurance premiums for employers if their employees walk 10,000 steps each day, for example. This has the potential to be a win-win: insurance companies pay less to cover medical expenses; companies have healthier, more productive employees; employees improve their health; and we may all live longer."

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