Building on Valuable (Human) Real Estate
by Russel Martin
The popularity of wearable devices has grown rapidly in recent years. This category of portable devices includes activity trackers, smart glasses, wearable cameras, and smart watches, just to name a few. These devices count our steps, estimate the calories we have burned, capture the scenes around us, display incoming phone calls, and tell us our heart rate. The range of diverse features they offer us increases month by month. Wearable devices will soon identify our mood, tell us whether we are drinking enough water, and gently remind us if we have been sitting too long.
We tend to carry our portable computing and communication devices (phones) wherever seems easiest to us. Some wear cell phones in holsters like modern-day gun slingers. Some drop them into back pockets, where the devices have a habit of inconveniently popping out — or calling random individuals by mistake. Many people place them on the table as soon as they sit down. Women’s phones spend most of their time in purses.
While there is much information that can be picked up about the user from their cell phone, the fact that the device’s position is uncertain presents problems for many tasks. Furthermore, a phone is only in skin contact with users when they are holding it. Many physiological measurements require physical contact; for example, measuring heart rate or blood oxygen saturation. On these two counts, wearable devices such as watches and exercise monitors have a distinct advantage over phones for sensing the user. Fixed location and skin contact are advantages. By far the most common location for a watch is on the non-dominant wrist. Some devices, such as clip-on pedometers or cameras, can be placed in several locations, but they remain in one location during use. An unchanging and well-defined location allows more accurate activity classification. That, in turn, lets the device make better predictions of the user’s situation, communicating it to their phones as necessary.
More significant are the opportunities afforded by skin contact. This valuable real estate allows access to far more information about users than just how they are moving. Optical measurements already can provide heart rate and blood oxygen content. Expanded methods should provide us with valuable information about the dynamic biochemistry of our bodies. This should allow us to track changes throughout the day and eventually may provide a window into our health.
In this issue, we have three articles describing methods of taking advantage of the valuable real estate that wearable devices build upon. Professor Wagner and his collaborators at Princeton University describe technology that can build electronics directly into fabrics, literally weaving it into our clothes. Professor Dahiya and co-authors from the University of Glasgow describe technology to build conforming plastic films that provide touch input and display output across a wearable device – even providing touch-sensitive skin to robots. These two articles teach us how to build upon our new property. Giorgio De Pasquale and Angela Lentini at the Polytechnic University of Turin in Italy describe how wearable sensors are a key to expanding telemedicine and connecting distant patients to doctors, thus building a hospital on this real estate.
I hope the articles in this issue of Information Display provide an opportunity for you to reflect upon how the location of the devices we wear determines what we can learn from them. As these devices become smaller and more integrated into our clothing and accessories, we gain convenience but, more importantly, deeper insights into our health. These advances provide opportunities to distinctly alter how rapidly health conditions are diagnosed and how health care is delivered.