“Wearables” were somewhat always around us
Everyone wears eyeglasses, sunglasses or a hand watch at some point in his life, doesn’t he? Well, yes, we can say with certainty that these “accessories” are the first wearable pieces of technology we ever experienced. These “wearables of the past” have of course only a mechanical function – protect us from sun rays, tell time, “correct” our farsightedness – and not an electronic one that calculates and reports significant data about our lifestyle. Nowadays, when we say “wearables” we mean –according to Investopedia – “a category of electronic devices that can be worn as accessories, embedded in clothing, implanted in the user’s body, or even tattooed on the skin. The devices are hands-free gadgets with practical uses, powered by microprocessors and enhanced with the ability to send and receive data via the Internet”.
A popular example – The smartwatch
A bit of history
So, ok, now you know the definition of “wearables”, right? But how does this translate in our everyday life? How can this kind of “miraculous” technology change our daily patterns? Well, let’s follow one popular example, that has already gained a fanatic audience, offering multiple functions one could never imagine: the smartwatches.
The first “baby” came in 1972! Its name was “Pulsar”, it was manufactured by Hamilton Watch Company, later was acquired by Seiko and by 1982 it could store 24 digits, making it the first watch with user-programmable memory. While during the ’80s we saw the first models that could interface with a computer, the first real smartwatch is considered the one invented by Steve Mann – the father of wearable watches – in 1998. It was the first watch to offer monochrome graphics display and many 3rd party applications.
In the decade of 2000, companies launched watches that offered more extended battery life, accelerometer, vibrating mechanism, fingerprint sensor, calendar software, Bluetooth, touchscreen-based graphical user interface, notifications for receiving calls and text messages, information like weather and stock prices transmitted through FM waves (SPOT technology) and sim card autonomy (not requiring to be tethered to a smartphone). 2013 was characterized as the “year of the smartwatch” as TrueSmart model made by Chinese startup Omate, was the first ever smartwatch to capture the full capability of a smartphone, plus it was small and cheap. The HOT smartwatch also in 2013, enabled users to leave their handsets in their pockets, since it had a speaker for phone calls in both quiet and noisy environments.
In June 2014, Google launched Wear OS (previously known as Android Wear), an Android operating system designed for smartwatches and other wearables. By pairing with mobile phones running Android version 6.0 or newer, or iOS version 10.0 or newer with limited support from Google’s pairing application, Wear OS integrated Google Assistant technology and mobile notifications into a smartwatch form factor. It supported Bluetooth, wifi, 3G and LTE connectivity, as well as a range of features and applications.
Up to 2018, companies like Samsung, Apple, Microsoft, LG, Motorola, Google, Swatch, Tag Heuer and others launched watches that competed in design, intelligence, autonomy from nearby smartphone connections, and offered fitness trackers, automatic activation, water resistance, detection of heart function, GPS, and numerous other possibilities.
The latest trends in smartwatch technology focus on a healthy lifestyle
Are you having nightmares?
If you suffer from sleep disturbance related to nightmares or post-traumatic stress, there is some good news for you. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved in 2020 an Apple app called NightWare, which functions on Apple watches and monitors heart rate and body movements during sleep. If it detects some kind of sleeping disorder, the watch vibrates, disrupting the user’s sleep and bringing him out of the nightmare. This app though is available by prescription only, is intended to be used alongside prescribed PTSD medications and other therapies, and under the supervision of a healthcare provider.
They never go to sleep…
Even at night, these watches never leave you unattended. For example, the Move ECG by Withings company never stops to measure your patterns, even in your sleep. It records your sleep automatically and in the app you get a breakdown of your night with light and deep sleep cycles, interruptions, and a sleep score. If you’re having trouble waking up, the Wake-up feature picks the perfect time to get you out of bed!
Another model, the Fitbit Versa 3, makes a difference with its sleep tracking tools. It keeps tabs on how much time you spent asleep every night, plus how long you spent in the various sleep stages. It also monitors blood oxygen saturation while snoozing, so if you suffer any severe changes in SpO2 (oxygen saturation) you could be tipped off to underlying breathing issues like sleep apnea. Based on this data, Fitbit provides a daily Sleep Score between 0-100.
Are you the organized freak or the fitness lover?
The Wear OS software by Google boasts to do pretty much everything and all from your wrist. If you are the organized kind of guy, then this seems to work best for you. By using this operating system you can look up commute times, see upcoming reservations, check your flight status, see your next meeting, get directions, check your grocery list, pay bills, text, email and see who’s calling and without pulling out your phone.
If you are a fitness lover, you can work out without your phone, by using Google Fit and other health apps that make it easy to get motivated, stay balanced and track your health right from your wrist. Along with your fitness programme, you may need some background music too, so, you can download or stream your favorite music right from your wrist. The aforementioned Fitbit Versa 3 goes even further with its on-board GPS. This means that even when you leave your phone at home, the watch can track your location during outdoor exercise. Moreover, it can monitor the time you spend in the fat burn, cardio or peak heart-rate zones while exercising. If you are the yoga type, another smartwatch, Vivoactive 4, offers animated on-screen yoga and Pilates workouts to help you improve your poses. Finally, if you want a detailed report of your daily activity, you can go with Move ECG by Withings company. This watch measures your steps and floors climbed with its integrated altimeter, tracks swim sessions, it gives you a map of your route connected with GPS, and all these with a waterproof protection.
Are you one of the 4 people suffering from atrial fibrillation (AFib) in the EU or US?
This is rather bad news but what would you say if there was a way to find out at any time if you experience an AFib crisis by having an electrocardiogram right at your wrist? The analogue watch Move ECG by Withings company can give you a medical-grade electrocardiogram by simply pressing the side button and placing your finger on the bezel, whenever you feel palpitations or an irregular heart rhythm. It does not substitute your doctor but gives you a warning sign that you have to attend one.
The Health Mate app paired with the watch provides you with an instant analysis of your heart rhythm and tells you whether it looks normal or shows signs of AFib. If signs are detected, the app will recommend you to get in touch with your doctor. The analysis records are saved and you can send them to your doctor as a pdf file.
Facts about AFib
- It is the most common heart rhythm disorder. AFib can lead to heart failure and is thought to be responsible for up to 30% of strokes.
- One in 4 in the EU or US will develop it once during their lifetime. Afib can occur at any time and can be intermittent irregular.
- Detecting it requires an ECG, usually recorded at the doctor’s office. Since AFib can be intermittent irregular, the condition is hard to diagnose, as episodes often occur outside of a medical office.
Watch your heart first
Before anything else, our heart health comes first. Now, you can understand how your lifestyle impacts your heart health by a clinically accurate, wearable blood pressure monitor available in Heart Guide wristwatch by Omron. In tandem with its companion app HeartAdvisor™, HeartGuide delivers powerful new technology making tracking and managing your blood pressure easier than ever before and in as little as 30 seconds. This feature is based on a breakthrough innovation: more than 80 new patents miniaturize the components for traditional oscillometric measurement, using an inflatable cuff within the watch band to take a blood pressure reading. You can also draw correlations between your behavior and your heart health, and also you can track steps, distance and calories burned.
Blood oxygen measurements are very popular due to the current pandemic
Except blood pressure measurements which are so essential for many people with heart problems, nowadays – with the onset of the novel corona-virus – blood oxygen monitoring has gained a lot of attention as well as it could be an early warning sign of asymptomatic Covid-19. The oximeter measures the percentage of oxygen your red blood cells carry from your lungs to the rest of your body. Knowing how well your blood performs this vital task can help you understand your overall health wellness. The new Apple watch Series 6 carries the Blood Oxygen app which allows you to measure the oxygen level of your blood on-demand directly from your wrist. Measurements taken with the Blood Oxygen app are not intended for medical use and are only designed for general fitness and wellness purposes. Finally, it is noted that the Blood Oxygen app is only available in certain countries and regions. Nowadays, an increasing number of wearable devices offer blood oxygen measurement.
The holistic approach
When it comes to health features in overall, the Fitbit Sense smartwatch really makes a breakthrough. Except for the ability to measure an atrial fibrillation crisis (as we have already mentioned), it can tell you how stressed you are by checking your heart rate, sleep, activity levels and by making an EDA scan which measures your electrodermal activity. After, it asks you how you’re feeling, and gives you the option of taking a guided meditation session to help you calm down. This seems really important as we currently experience a worldwide pandemic which has exacerbated rampant stress levels while doctors are seeing an increase in stress-related heart disease.
This watch also carries a skin temperature monitor which is meant to provide a general sense of your overall health, but is not a primary indicator of any medical condition. You have to wear the watch while you’re sleeping for it to get a reading; it takes three consecutive nights for the watch to get a baseline reading. A higher or lower skin temperature could mean anything from the onset of an illness or pregnancy, or something as simple as your room being warmer or cooler than the night before.
Emotional management for people with intellectual disabilities
Emotional management is even more demanding when it comes to people with disabilities. A Canadian company, Awake Labs, has developed a technology that helps people with intellectual disabilities manage stress so they can spend less time worrying and more time enjoying life. Their software platform uses a smartwatch and a mobile device. The smartwatch is worn by the person experiencing stress. The mobile app displays real-time stress levels and can be used by self-advocates or their caregivers (e. g. family member, respite worker, personal support worker).
A stress controller
Well, this is not a smartwatch but it is a wrist worn device by TouchPoint company that promises to reduce your stress and have a better sleep time. It is made of a pair of neuroscientific wearables that are placed on each wrist preventively in the morning or at night, for example, to induce the body to calm before going to sleep. TouchPoints can also be used before, during or after a stressful situation, be it a work meeting or an emotionally complicated conversation.
Some technical features of today’s watches you should notice
The most outstanding feature of today’s smartwatches in technical terms is the LTE connection, which means that you can make and receive phone calls from your wrist without a phone present, get and send notifications, go online, download music, upload watch data to the cloud and more. It means that the smartwatch is no longer simply an extension of the smartphone and can function totally independently.
Another element you should notice is the battery life. This has always been a downside in most smartwatches. Usually you had to charge again and again. Today, many smartwatches in the market offer longer battery life, up to 60 hours of use. Some others offer up to 7 or 8 days of battery life. Finally, there are some smartwatches out there with poorer color displays that do not drain their battery and can last up to 45 days. Performing computations already on the smartwatch (edge computing) can save battery life, because the otherwise necessary data transmission from smartwatch to mobile app may use substantial battery power.
Is there a need for improvement?
Yes, positively, yes. Wearables are defined as “autonomous” devices, in reality however, commercial wearables are not really autonomous. To deliver advanced functionalities they use auxiliary apps running on smartphones. That is the case for a number of smartwatches that monitor blood O2 saturation levels, skin temperature, and heart rate to diagnose COVID-19 symptoms in early stages, track sleeping patterns and stress levels.
So, there is the need for real autonomy which will make carrying an additional smart device redundant. One good practice paradigm is a new technology brought by MCS Data Labs in Germany (Smarko®), which includes – among others – a smart wrist device collecting vital data by using bluetooth low energy (BLE) technology and an embedded SIM card. Smart power management and a replaceable easily rechargeable battery allow 24/7 monitoring at low operating cost. The device includes mechanisms for automatic and manual alerts being sent directly to the doctor. The MCS smartwatch is customizable and, besides health monitoring, can be adapted to specific use cases like outdoor air pollution and air quality. A corresponding mobile app also enables detection of atrial fibrillation. In contrast to other smartwatches the development of the MCS smartwatch follows a “white box” approach thus making it fully transparent to the user and making it an ideal tool for research purposes.
Data privacy and user’s protection
Smartwatches gather tons of personalized information on you – passing it through connections like Bluetooth and the internet. Your GPS location, motion tracking, credit card transactions, and calendar in isolation may be relatively safe. But combined, these details can reveal your ATM PINs, passwords, daily routine, and more. In theory, if your manufacturer uses centralized, in-house services to store and process your data – a single company breach could open you to data theft. This data can tell a fraudster a lot about you and your activities. All the info gathered, sent, and received by these devices becomes perfect for hijacking your identity and life. Your privacy could be compromised and in another way. Your data may also be used by some third-parties to create advertising profiles on you. This data might even end up with many different companies, generating more points-of-attack to breach your privacy. According to a recent research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, 29 of the 36 best-rated applications for the treatment of depression and smoking cessation share data with Google and Facebook, which could potentially compromise users’ privacy.
Therefore, there is a need for improvement in this area. In the SmarKo® example we referred to, there is a “safety valve” for data protection. It contains a special chip (hardware enabled security) for secure authentification of the device. The company is committed to high ethical standards required for the handling of patients’ data, by giving the option to decide where to store their data within the existing legal framework.
What to expect to land on your wrists in the future?
The sky is the limit in this case. Especially in the medical world, it seems that smartwatches will become doctors’ favorite gadget. The idea is that clinicians could gather a patients’ vitals, continuously and in real time, from their wearable smartwatch – rather than asking a nurse to do the same job manually once an hour. Also, people with diabetes – 9% of the global population – could send their glucose (blood sugar) readings through glucose-monitoring apps to their physicians. Long awaited is the non-invasive, contactless and optical measurement of glucose by a smartwatch. Apple has been working on this field since 2012 and has filed new patent applications recently. Not only Apple users are wondering whether this new function will already be integrated in the new Apple Watch Series 7 expected to come to market still this year.