The disruptive technology profiled in this post is what I generically call “wearable technologies”. By wearable technology, I mostly mean “wearable computers”, but I don’t want to limit myself to just computers. Wikipedia.org defines a wearable computer as “a small portable computer that is designed to be worn on the body during use” (you can read Wikipedia.org’s full entry on wearable computers here). Because the technology is affixed to your body (i.e,. you wear it), a great potential exists to automate and utilize functions directly related to the body and body processes.
I don’t think that I need to go into too much detail as to the unlimited possible ways in which we can use wearable technologies. But, I will focus on a few specific health care applications that I see as plausible.
- Biomedical Devices – This one is a no-brainer. We already have devices that are worn on the body (i.e., Holter monitor for recording heart rates/ECGs), and using sophisticated “wearable technologies” is just a natural extension of this idea. The only difference would be the types of things that can be monitored and having the ability to automatically have the collected data transmitted to a health care provider, information system, or other processing unit for immediate analysis and action (whatever that may be). If you’re still not sure about what I mean, just watch some of the Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Voyager episodes. Wearable technologies, specifically for health applications, seem to be the norm. An example could be a device that automatically measures blood glucose levels.
- Delivering Treatments/Drugs – An extension of the idea of wearing biomedical devices, technologies could be worn that would delivery drugs directly into the body (probably through some sort of system that “sprays” the chemicals into the blood stream through the skin – again, think Star Trek and the “hyposprays” for an idea). Keeping with the diabetes theme, in addition to measuring and monitoring blood glucose, a device could also inject insulin to regulate the body’s processes. Something that I think could be more practical could be some device for emergency situations for people with extreme allergic reactions.
- Visual Interface Devices – Wearing technologies in the form of “glasses” is something that is probably something that is likely to happen. The glasses could function as a both a scanning device or even a monitor that displays information that is called up by the user. For example, a physician could be wearing some sort of hi-tech glasses that pulls up a patient’s medical record as well as the most recent information regarding treatment options while the physician (or nurse) is speaking and engaging with the patient. Stephen Mann has been experimenting with wearable glasses, or the “eyetap” as he calls it (http://eyetap.org). Mann’s basic argument (as I understand it) is that the eye is perhaps one of the fastest ways to interact with our minds.
- Sensory Interface Devices – While I’m pretty sure that wearable glasses could work without too much challenge, we do have other senses that could be used as interfaces. I can’t remember the exact person and/or company, but a British group is exploring the use of auditory interfaces to give us a different means of interacting with technologies. Why couldn’t we use other devices that work with our sense of touch, smell, and voice. The question you have to ask then, is a “prosthetic device” a wearable technology? I don’t know.
I know that I’ve only just started to scratch the surface on applications for wearable technologies in health settings. I’d have to give much more considerable thought to think of specific examples and applications, but I’m pretty confident that wearable technologies will prove to change health care and ehealth.
As I think about wearable technologies, I am left with several questions:
- At what point does a technology become too invasive?
- Does the technology have to remain “outside” of the body?
- If something is implanted or integrated into the body, is it still considered “wearable” or are we starting to talk about cyborgs?
MSNBC.com has an interesting special series on evolution, with an article that tries to predict what humans will look like in the future. In one article titled “Human evolution at the crossroads“, one scenario explores cyborgs and how computers slowly invade and become part of the human body. Our ideas about technology remaining outside of the body may change in the future to when we start talking about cyborg technologies.