Wearables: Hope or Hype?

I've been thinking about this question a lot in 2014. I'm seeing more articles proclaiming that wearable technology is a 'fad', has no 'practical' value, and in the context of health are often viewed as inferior to officially certified & regulated medical devices.

"Technology is beyond good or bad", said Tamara Sword, at yesterday's Wearable Horizons event. Now, a very common piece of technology in our kitchen, the knife, is a classic example. Used for it's purpose, it speeds up the food preparation process by slicing carrots. However, it can also be used for harm, if used to slice a finger off.

The same goes with wearable technology like Google Glass. It can do immense good, such as saving someone's life. However, it could also be used to harm, if someone wearing Glass takes a picture of your 5 year old child in Starbucks without obtaining consent from your child or yourself [credit to the visionary John Havens for making me think about the Starbucks scenario]

We all have to start somewhere

We have to remember that the market for wearables is embryonic, it's not mature in any shape or size. Every innovation I see & test is crude & clumsy, with many flaws. Thinking back to 1903, wasn't the first airplane crude & clumsy?  Wearables WILL evolve, just like the the airplane [Hopefully, it won't take 111 years like the airplane] 

I salute those willing to take a risk and develop wearable technology. From the lone entrepreneurs to Nike, what unites them is that they took a risk. They experimented. Experiments don't always turn out to be successful, noting Nike's recent withdrawal from Wearables. That's entirely normal, we can't expect everyone to succeed at their first attempt. What would our world look like today, if Steve Jobs had given up after his first attempt? 

How many of you failed your driving test the first time? Instead of dismissing the brave efforts of those willing to take a risk into the unknown, we should be encouraging & supporting them. It's those willing to take those chances, to explore unknown waters, to imagine a better world, that have helped humanity make so much progress. 

Courageous conversations

There are many questions around wearables that remain unanswered. There are uncomfortable, awkward & terrifying conversations surrounding the use of wearable technology that are sorely needed, not just within society, but within our political, legal and regulatory framework too. If we place a piece of wearable tech on a patient with dementia, how do we obtain informed consent from the patient?

When I saw the recent headline that a hospital in Boston is equipping everyone in the ER room with Google Glass, my first reaction was one of excitement, with my second reaction being one one of curiosity. What happens to the face & voice data? At 3am, when the ambulance rushes you & your sick child to the hospital, will you really stop to ask the hospital staff, what the privacy policy is, regarding the images captured using Google Glass of your child in the hospital?

I observe that many, including those in the business of creating or using regulated medical devices, look down upon some wearable technologies. Activity trackers are frequently viewed as fun toys, not 'proper' medical devices.

Let me ask you something. If an overweight & inactive person aged 40, uses a $99 Fitbit to track their activity & sleep, leading to insights that trigger behaviour change over the long term, is it still a toy? For example, what if developing the habit of walking 10,000 steps a day (versus 1,000 today), reduces their risk of a heart attack, delays the onset of Diabetes or even prevents high blood pressure? Still just a 'glorified' pedometer?

Imagining a better tomorrow

I believe wearable technology, particularly for health, is just one step on the journey in today's digital world. There will continue to be failures, and whilst there is significant froth & hype, there is also significant hope. Our ability to imagine a better future is what has gotten us to where we are today. Imagination could be one of the most useful attributes for any organisation wishing to meet the challenges facing human health in the 21st century.

It appears likely that firms which don't have roots in health could be helping us realise this new world. Perhaps this shift frightens those firms that have got their roots in health? I'm intrigued to note that Samsung, are holding an event in San Francisco later this month, promising that a new conversation about health is about to begin. Having visited South Korea a few years ago, and learning so much about Samsung's history & vision, I'm going to be watching what they do very closely. 

Is it a bad thing if wearable technology (and the resulting data, insights & education) empowers patients and makes them less dependent on doctors & the healthcare system?

Is it wrong to dream of 'smart fabrics' where our health could be monitored 24 hours a day?

Is it silly to want to develop sensors that could one day transmit data directly from our internal organs to our doctors?

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