A 2015 Baltimore Sun article described a 32-year-old Maryland man who had the curious habit of walking, even on the coldest winter days, with only one hand in his pocket. He explained that he doesn't want to interfere with the function of the electronic gadget on his other wrist, which counts how many steps he's getting on his daily walk. "If there's a number on it, I want to know what it is," he said.
He's not the only one who's become obsessed. According to a recent survey, about one in five Americans owns a wearable electronic device, and most of them are doing it for health-related reasons. Seventy-seven percent of wearable technology users want the gadgets to help them exercise better, while 75 percent are interested in collecting and tracking medical information such as their heart rate and sleep habits.
People have become so sold on wearables' health value, that 70 percent say they would even allow a device to continuously stream health data — with their identities redacted — to their health insurers in exchange for a break in their premiums [sources: Comstock, PwC].
It's all part of a growing social trend, in which people strive to measure, quantify and subtly tinker with their lives in the quest for self-improvement. As futurist and author Ken Cukier explained in 2013, "What today looks like a bunch of fitness freaks and narcissists, tomorrow we'll call health care" [source: Kiger].
But even though it's largely positive, our fixation upon wearable gadgetry can take us to some amusing extremes. Here are 10 of the weirdest health wearables that are either already on the market or in development.
Temporary tattoo decals, which can be washed away or eventually wear off, have become a hot fashion accessory for people who want to experiment with looking like inked-up NBA basketball players, biker mamas or punk-rock musicians, without having to endure a tattoo needle. (There's also the advantage of not having to explain that flaming skull on your left shoulder to a nursing home attendant many years later.)
But a team of researchers at University of California-San Diego also has figured out a way to embed electrochemical sensors in temporary tattoos and use them to monitor the chemical balance and health of an athlete or exerciser. The Electrozyme temporary tattoo measures lactate, a chemical compound generated by muscles as they exert themselves, which is released in sweat. That information can be used to monitor muscular exertion, fatigue, hydration level, electrolyte balance and even the rate at which your muscles break down from exertion. The info is then relayed to a smartphone or other device to analyze your workout. It's a lot less intrusive and cumbersome than the previous method of measuring lactate, which required a person to take frequent breaks in a workout so that blood samples could be collected [sources: Kuriakose, Sacco, Jacobs School of Engineering].
You may think of wearable electronic monitoring devices as something that criminal defendants sport on their ankles while they're awaiting trial, to ensure that they don't jump bail. But in recent years, researchers have looked to more sophisticated tracking gadgets as a way of giving peace of mind to people with elderly parents or relatives who still are living independently.
One promising device is CarePredict Tempo, a wristwatch for older people that continuously tracks the patterns of their daily existence, from where they go in the house and how much time they spend in each room, to how often they take naps. The company uses that data to construct a prediction of how a person lives, and whenever there's some slight variation, it sends an alert wirelessly to a family member or caregiver. So if Grandma starts sleeping more or walking less, her daughter would be alerted and could take action. Grandma also will receive an alert if she forgets to wear the device [source: CarePredict.com].
The company's website says it will begin shipping the kit, which includes both the wearable device and beacons that allow it to transmit from multiple rooms, in the summer of 2015.
For years, health-minded runners — and what other kind is there? — have been sporting wearable electronic devices to help them navigate their workout routes and measure their speed and cardiovascular performance.
But we've come a long way from the days when the state-of-the-art was a bulky GPS device on the wrist, or cumbersome strap-on heart monitors. The latest-generation monitoring devices are not only less obtrusive, but also can track and quantify a much wider range of information.
One such gadget is Sensoria smart socks, which have circuits and sensors woven into them and an anklet with a wireless chip, so that they can measure and communicate how fast and how far you run, and whether your running technique needs work. There is one catch: You have to make sure that you wear the sock on the correct foot, and that the lights on the sole, heel and ankle are blinking properly [source: Sensoria].
Meanwhile, another gadget manufacturer has come up with an electronically enhanced sock that may help you to avoid the stress of having a drawer full of mismatched socks. Blacksocks' Smarter Socks are equipped with a radio-frequency identification (RFID) chip that can communicate with your iPhone to make sure you always match a sock with its original mate [source: Blacksocks.com].
When you were a kid, you probably had a parent or teacher who nagged you continuously about the importance of sitting and standing up straight, lest you develop some hideous deformity, or failing that, appear so dyspeptic and unmotivated that nobody would ever hire you for a job.
Unfortunately, they're not following you around these days giving you those annoying reminders, and as a result, you're probably slumping when you sit at the computer keyboard or stand in line at your favorite fast-food joint. There's growing evidence that bad posture not only causes backaches, but also can negatively affect your mood and energy [source: Brown].
Fortunately, a wearable gadget promises to fix all that. The Lumo Lift wearable digital posture corrector is a lapel pin-sized square sensor that you can clip to your clothes. You can set it to gently vibrate whenever you need a reminder to keep your head lifted and shoulders back. To shame you even more, it also tracks the amount of time that you maintain good posture during the day, and reports that information to your smartphone [source: Lumobodytech.com].
Another intriguing wearable is the Kinetic smart back brace, which alerts you if you're picking up heavy objects improperly [source: Finley].
Air pollution is a big health hazard around the world, causing as many as 7 million premature deaths annually, according to the World Health Organization. That's why a wearable personal pollution monitor, which tracks the amount of dangerous chemicals in the air and provides warnings via your smartphone when you need to seek refuge indoors, is a tool that could make a major difference for people who live in big, polluted cities, particularly asthmatics.
TZOA, for example, is a button-sized sensor that can be attached to your clothing or a purse, to continually monitor and gather data on air quality, temperature, humidity, atmospheric pressure and even solar UV exposure. It streams that data to a smartphone app, which not only gives you continuous reports, but also contributes to a crowd-sourced effort to map pollution hotspots in cities. TZOA's manufacturer plans to market the product by late 2015. Companies are developing at least two other gadgets with similar functions —AirBeam and Clarity [sources: Alba, Handwerk, Rodin].
Brassieres have a lot of surface area compared to, say, a wristwatch, and since they're worn under clothing, they provide a great potential place to stash wearable health technology.
That's why a company called Cyrcadia Health has created the iTBra, which gives wearers a digital breast self-exam. While a woman wears the iTBra during one day a month, it looks for subtle temperature changes that may indicate tumors, and then transmits the information to her smartphone. Not only is the digital self-exam more convenient than a mammogram, it's also more comfortable, since the iTBra's technology means "no pressing, squishing, squashing or radiation," according to the company website [source: Cyrcadia].
Meanwhile, Microsoft researchers have developed another type of smart bra for weight control. It includes an electrocardiogram sensor to measure heart rate, and an electrodermal activity sensor to track perspiration. The Microsoft undergarment uses that data to gauge a woman's emotional state at any given moment, in an effort to detect shifts that might result in overeating. When the sensor activity get too high, a warning signal is sent to her smartphone so she can move away from the kitchen. Women, of course, aren't the only ones who sometimes struggle with their weight, so we might someday see a weight-control smart undershirt for men. But as of 2015, Microsoft had no plans to commercially produce this bra [source: Griggs].
We normally think of contact lenses as a way to correct our vision. But thanks to advances in the miniaturization of electronics and the development of new materials, future generations of contact lenses actually will be able to monitor a wearer's health in various ways.
In 2014, for example, Google announced a partnership with European pharmaceutical manufacturer Novartis to develop smart contact lenses capable of continuously monitoring a user's blood sugar levels in real time. The lenses would then send the data to the person's smartphone, which could in turn relay alerts to a doctor. Novartis chief executive Joe Jimenez told The New York Times that it probably will take a few years to get the lenses on the market.
When they do become available, the Google-Novartis lenses may also include another innovation — a lens under development by Google that would work in a fashion similar to autofocus on a camera, so that it would adjust automatically to help a user look at close-up or distant objects [source: Scott].
Similarly, other researchers in South Korea and the U.S. are working to develop contact lenses with tiny sensors that would test the chemical composition of the tears in your eyes, in order to monitor other health conditions [source: Bourzac].
While some people are looking to smartphones and other electronic devices as tools for improving their health, others worry that the gadgets themselves are a carcinogenic risk because of the electromagnetic radiation they emit. After all, they sit in our pockets for long stretches, a few inches from our reproductive organs. Nevertheless, the National Cancer Institute says studies of cells, humans and other animals don't provide any evidence that such devices can cause cancer, and notes that the radio-frequency energy they transmit, unlike some other types of radiation, doesn't cause DNA damage in cells.
But if you're still worried about the effect of smartphone radiation on your, ah, personal parts, you may get some comfort from radiation-shielding underwear. Riparo, a Toronto-based clothing startup, has developed a pair of EMF boxer briefs, which contain silver woven into the cotton-polyester blend that the manufacturer claims will block 99.99 percent of radiation from smartphones and other devices [source: Takahashi]. Another brand, Wireless Armour, offers electromagnetic-radiation-blocking shorts in two different styles — one with shielding only in the front, and the other with shielding all the way around, which presumably would protect a user from other people's cell phones as well [source: Wireless Armour].
According to the American College of Prosthodontists, more than 35 million Americans suffer from edentulism, which is a fancy way of saying that they no longer have their own teeth, as a result of injury, tooth decay, gum disease or other causes. About 90 percent of those people wear dentures [source: ACP]. But getting dentures to fit comfortably in a wearer's mouth isn't easy.
That's one reason why University of Florida researchers have developed and patented the design for a set of multifunctional smart dentures, which are equipped with sensors that continuously measure the pressure and friction inside a person's mouth. The sensors wirelessly transmit the data to the prosthodontist, who can then ask the patient to come in and adjust the dentures for a better fit. But the device offers other benefits as well. Its sensors can analyze saliva and detect the onset of various diseases, including cancer and diabetes. Finally, they also are able to dispense medication directly into a patient's mouth, which eliminates the possibility that he or she will forget to take it [source: UFL].
Smoking is the leading preventable cause of death in the world, and despite a lot of bad publicity about its health effects, there are still close to 42 million adult smokers in the U.S. [source: CDC]. Many would-be ex-smokers try to shed their addiction by using a nicotine patch to gradually dispense smaller doses of the addictive ingredient.
Now, a company called Chrono Therapeutics is developing a new, improved smart nicotine patch to be worn on the arm or torso, and wirelessly connected to your smartphone. Each night the smoker inserts a new nicotine cartridge into the device and sets the wake-up time. The wake-up time tells the device when to start administering the nicotine so smokers have nicotine “on board” before waking, preventing strong morning cravings.
At first the dose of nicotine is high, but as the 10-week cessation program continues, the amount of nicotine tapers down until the user is weaned off the substance completely. The device uses Bluetooth technology to communicate with the mobile app, which provides real-time coaching for cravings and staying quit.
Sensors embedded in the monitor enable the smoker to look at the app and see details on the nicotine going into his body. If he feels a new, unexpected smoking craving, he can tell the app, which will provide immediate coaching support via text message.
A fitness app that maps exercise habits exposed a critical risk for security of U.S. forces. HowStuffWorks looks at how apps track our every move.
Author's Note: 10 Weird Wearables That Monitor Your Health
A few years back, I briefly experimented with wearing a heart monitor while running, in an effort to adjust my level of cardiovascular exertion and get a more productive workout. Getting the gadget to work properly was a challenge, though, and I found that continually checking my heart rate distracted me from the pleasure of running. Even so, I'm intrigued by the latest generation of devices, which gather a wider range of data and seem to do it less obtrusively. So I may try some of them in the near future.
More Great Links
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- American College of Prosthodontists. "Facts and Figures." Gotoapro.org. (May 25, 2015) http://www.gotoapro.org/news/facts--figures/
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