Feature Story

Move Over Wearables, Make Way for Invisibles

by Anne Field

The state of the art in wearable technology isn't worn on the wrist. It's attached to the skin—or perhaps even embedded inside the body—while delivering data ranging from the wearer's heart rate to the frequency of tremors.

If, several months from now, you notice that the person on the treadmill next to you at the gym has an odd-looking Band-Aid-like thing on his torso, don't worry: It's probably just a performance monitor. The product, called AmpStrip and made by Shelton, CT-based FitLinxx, contains tiny sensors that monitor heart rate and other functions and adheres to the skin.

AmpStrip is part of a coming wave in wearables called invisibles. Indeed, the next big thing in sensor-based technology that's sported on the body is likely to be devices you can't see. Unlike the current generation of wearables, which often fit around the wrist, announcing their presence to the world, these gizmos may be attached to the skin like a Band-Aid--or, perhaps even embedded under the skin or inside the body--while delivering all manner of data about the wearer, from heart rate to the frequency of tremors. Some of the stuff is just coming on the market now, while other innovations probably won't be available for several years. But, in any case, "We're just at the tip of the iceberg in terms of what this technology will be able to do," says Weston Henderek, director of the NPD Group's Connected Intelligence practice. By 2017, 30% of wearables will be "unobtrusive to the naked eye," according to market researcher Gartner.

See Also: Wearable Tech Startups Target the Enterprise

Just what constitutes an invisible? For now, there's no single answer. According to one definition, for example, it includes items that act, but don't look, like wearables: They're designed to be seen, but their utilitarian function is camouflaged. Misfit's solar-charged activity tracker, for example, is hidden under Swarovski crystal and looks like a bracelet. Current industry leader Fitbit, recently partnered with designer Tory Burch to introduce a tracker camouflaged to resemble gold and silver jewelry.

Total Camouflage

But other definitions go further, tossing aside the question of aesthetics. "They're something on the body that's completely hidden and provides continuous monitoring," says FitLinxx president and CEO Dave Monahan. Generally that means technology attached to the body and kept on for a long time.

The advantage: Discrete and ultra-lightweight, users won't forget to wear them, since they're seldom removed. And because they're almost always on, they provide data 24-7.

Take AmpStrip. Encased in a housing of silicone, the thin, 3.5 inch-long waterproof device includes sensors, such as an accelerometer, as well as a wireless battery. You then attach it to your torso with an adhesive, which lasts for three to seven days. As a result, the device not only tracks heart rate, skin temperature and posture, as well as critical fitness metrics like resting heart rate and heart rate recovery, among other things, but it does so all the time. The data, transmitted via Bluetooth technology, is displayed on a smart phone or tablet. It's scheduled to hit the market this summer.

See Also: Cisco Talks Connected Healthcare at SXSW 2015

So far, as with FitLinxx, the clearest uses for invisibles are health and fitness-related. Cambridge, Mass-based MC10, is testing applications for what Benjamin Schlatka, co-founder and vice president of corporate development, calls "wearable computers that blend into the background of life, so wearers don't even know they have them on." Resembling small, rectangular, stretchy stickers the size of two postage stamps, the core platform, called the BioStamp, contains sensors appropriate for a particular use and can be attached to the skin, anywhere on the body. (They should be removed every seven days or less, depending on the application).

Working with partners, the company is working on a wide variety of health-related applications. For example, in partnership with UCB Pharmaceuticals, it's developing a system for patients suffering from neurological movement disorders, such as Parkinson's, aimed at monitoring tremors and other symptoms and clinical trial innovation. Other potential uses range from monitoring sleep patterns or changes in a baby's temperature to alerting wearers when it's time to reapply suntan lotion or that their skin is dehydrated.

Next: Inside the Body

The next step for invisibles involves embedded technology. That means sensor-based devices inserted under the skin or inside a part of the body—say, implanted into a patient's pulmonary artery to provide data pointing to early signs of congestive heart failure or a hearing aid that can be adjusted using data sent wirelessly to your smart phone.  

That also includes the work of a group of intrepid technologists who are trying to pioneer an entirely new conception of what invisibles--specifically those that are embedded within the body--can do. The goal: using these sensor-based devices not to address a medical problem, but to make healthy people more capable. Grindhouse Wetware, a startup based in Pittsburgh, for example, is testing a device called Circadia, which is an implantable chip that can send body metrics wirelessly to a phone or other device. "We want to use technology to augment the human body," says co-founder Ryan O'Shea.

Still, even many staunch invisibles advocates don't predict the technology will become ubiquitous in all areas of life. "The idea that everybody's going to use an invisible isn't correct," says Monahan. "You need to find good use cases for it--a motivated group for whom it's more than a nice to have."


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