Wearable Sensors Could Alter Mobile Phones, Boost Health Monitoring: Report

Wearable monitors could reinvent the mobile phone and bring new uses in health for contact lenses and tattoos, GigaOM Pro predicts in a new report.

Wearable computing could lead to an overhaul of mobile phone architecture, according to a July report by GigaOM Pro, the research arm of online tech publisher GigaOM.

These wearable sensors were the subject of science fiction not too many years ago. Then, the military started developing them. Now these devices are moving into fitness and wellness, said Jody Ranck, an analyst at GigaOM Pro and the report's author.

As this technology develops and becomes more widespread, they could lead to mobile phone technology being deconstructed into other form factors, Ranck told eWEEK.

"Remember how the app store has totally changed what we think about the phone?" Ranck asked. "Will wearables also inform how a phone looks? I think it's an interesting question."

As telecommunication companies partner with device manufacturers, Ranck expects significant innovation in wearable health devices and mobile technology. "The phone is ripe for change," said Ranck. "I suspect it will change even faster than my gut even thinks."

Wearable health and fitness monitors could reach 170 million devices by 2017, ABI Research reported.

These wireless devices attach to the body and provide biofeedback in real time for data such as a heart rate or blood glucose level.

Monitoring chronic conditions will be a key use for the monitors, said Ranck.

Wearable health monitors can be inserted into clothing, bracelets, badges or even tattoos, according to GigaOM Pro. Smart-skin tattoos can monitor blood glucose, drug therapy delivery or serve as a nicotine patch, said Ranck.

MC10, an electronics company in Cambridge, Mass., plans to add WiFi capabilities to an epidermal monitor developed by the University of Illinois. Sano Intelligence, a tech startup, has developed a wearable patch that monitors kidney function, metabolism and blood glucose levels.

Meanwhile, the Gates Foundation funded a project at the University of California, San Diego's Jacobs School of Engineering for research using a wireless "pregnancy tattoo." It transmits data on uterus contractions and heart rate of the mother and the heart rate of the fetus. The tattoo will transmit data to a mobile phone and then to the cloud, according to Todd Coleman, a bioengineering professor at UCSD.

GigaOM Pro cites Apple, Google and Microsoft as developers of wearable health technology. Apple was an early entrant with the iPod and the Nike fitness sensors that connect with it.

Microsoft is developing wearable devices that can control smartphones and Xbox games, said Ranck. The company is also working with the University of Washington on a contact lens for the sight impaired to monitor blood glucose levels, Ranck noted.

Google's Project Glass prototype unveiled June 27 at the search giant's I/O conference could also make an impact in the wireless monitor space, said Ranck. The technology consists of an Android-powered display, a Webcam, a GPS locator and Internet connection node on one side of a pair of glasses. Project Glass is slated to hit the market in 2014 and could provide contextual health alerts, Ranck noted.

For wearable health monitors to succeed, they'll need to be interoperable, according to Ranck. Bluetooth connectivity could provide this interoperability, along with the use of a platform such as Qualcomm's 2net cloud service, he said. The 2net platform already connects devices such as Independa's Artemis remote-monitoring sensors for seniors.

Health monitoring for seniors will bring 36 million wearable health monitors to market by 2017, an increase from 3 million in 2011, according to a July 13 ABI Research report. These short-range or cellular devices will enable seniors to live more independently, according to ABI.