Beyond clocks

The wristwatch had shown consumers the potential of technology that could be seamlessly incorporated into clothing and everyday life. It took the development of advanced miniaturisation before more than a few limited functions could be incorporated into a wearable device. Then, with the birth of digital computing on a mass scale, wearable tech came into its own.

One of the first wearable computerised devices was devised to help the user gain an unfair advantage while playing casino Roulette. This device, the forerunner of much of today’s wearable tech, although of limited potential use to the general public, was conceived to calculate probabilities on the fly. This mini-computer showed the potential of customised devices that could be turned to thousands of everyday functions: from calculators to music and entertainment devices like the Walkman, to digital hearing aids and early sports performance watches like 2003’s Garmin Forerunner. Despite the significant advance that had taken place from the simple time-telling devices of just a century before, the new generation of wearable technology was still almost exclusively in a one-way relationship with the user. The device measured some external factor like time or depth and transmitted this measurement to the wearer. However, in parallel to the advancement in computer technology, sensor technology was making similar progress – leading into the third generation of wearable tech that we find ourselves in today.

The next step

Despite looking broadly similar to older devices designed for the same tasks, what actually sets this $12bn industry apart is its ability to change and respond to its users rather than just to provide information. This is also the key to the next step in wearable tech, which is a far greater AI-led ability to make advanced predictions and suggestions about the future from past behaviour, and nowhere will this be more keenly felt than in healthcare.

Access to trained medical professionals is still a huge barrier to treatment. Another barrier to effective treatment is the fact that the patient is often asymptomatic. A patient who doesn’t know that they are sick is a difficult patient to treat, something that wearables can address in several areas, from cancer care to age-related conditions like Parkinsons Disease and Dementia. Diagnostics will play a big part in this, with wearable devices monitoring patients for signs of illness and transmitting this data to doctors and patients. Once diagnosed treatment can also be positively affected. Wearable devices will be able to recommend treatment plans and plan exercise regimes, as well as remind patients to take their medication at the right times and suggest diet plans. They may even play a part in the treatment itself. The time will soon be upon us when wearable items like gloves and socks provide heat therapy-on-demand to patients with everything from sports injuries to arthritis. This will remove the need for patients to go to doctor’s appointments; freeing up professionals to deal with more severe illnesses.

This technology is also seeing improvements in a vast range of other situations, from recreation to business and retail. But it is in healthcare, where it has the possibility to save lives and profoundly change outcomes. This potentially life-changing technology is one of the significant drivers for research and development in the wearable tech field. Undoubtedly in the years to come wearables will go way beyond merely informing or entertaining us, they will be keeping us living healthier and longer lives.