Forget wearable tech: electronic medtech devices are going invisible

Author : Chris Wootton, CEO at Chemigraphic

06 November 2018

Credit: Shutterstock

As disposable as the fashion for wearables may sometimes seem, it’s actually part and parcel of the way that the IoT is using connected devices and sensors to create medical products that can truly change lives. But, as this piece explains, these devices go well beyond being wearable – they’re now becoming invisible...

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From wearable to invisible

Such a move from micro-tech to invisible tech can be seen in our wider culture beyond the arcane innovations emerging in medical devices. Forbes says this about the wider trend: “The main future change I see for wearables is the ‘disappearance’ of them: the integration of their smart features into everyday items.

"The rise of ‘invisibles’ will see wearable devices built into the things we use every day, such as clothes, accessories, shoes and jewellery. And it will feed us data that is probably more biometric in nature than it is now, for deeper insights into our health.”

Examples of this aren’t too hard to find. There are already smart trainers on the market that can record your running data, and smart shorts are available that collect combined muscle load with heart rate data. That’s right, a pair of running shorts that can measure the electrical activity of your muscles, and share this in real time via Bluetooth to an app (they may currently be beyond many runners’ budgets, but that’s another matter!).

From invisible to indispensable

Medical electronics continue to drive innovation throughout the healthcare industry. The global medical electronics market has seen tremendous growth over the past 20 years, in terms of money invested, technical advancements made, increased healthcare reach and the integration of our healthcare with both IT and the IoT.

Market research firm, Research and Markets suggests that the total value of the medical electronics market will exceed $56 billion by 2020, growing at an impressive compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 5.5% over the next five years.

Healthcare wearables are increasingly evident, with bracelets, pendants or smartwatches performing functions such as tracking, recording and reporting every step and heartbeat of those who wear them. The new Apple Watch Series 4, launched in September 2018, goes a step further and has the ability to take an electrocardiogram (ECG), which offers a much more detailed picture of your heart rate. You’ll be able to take a reading any time and receive an alert if the Watch detects any abnormal rhythms – a possible sign of atrial fibrillation.

Yet, this is just the tip of the iceberg: it’s what we can’t see that is truly revolutionary. As a solution for many patients, wearables are actually fairly high-risk. What if they are removed or simply not worn? Or they are worn incorrectly so that the collected data can’t be trusted?

The trend – as in the consumer market – is towards devices and sensors so small that you can’t see them. Or remove them. Stuart Karten, president at product innovation consultancy, Karten Design, says: “Invisibles will create a world in which we don’t see technology or sensors; they are seamlessly integrated into the human body.”

Valeritas Holdings manufactures the V-Go Wearable Insulin Delivery device. This highly-affordable all-in-one insulin delivery option is worn like a patch by patients with diabetes. Epidermal electronic systems (EES) take this idea one step further. Its medical tattoos are patches that allow researchers and clinicians to track vital signs. Variations have been developed that can be voice-activated.

“Our goal was to develop an electronic technology that could integrate with the skin in a way that is mechanically and physiologically invisible to the user,” says John Rogers, a professor at the University of Illinois.

The pursuit of invisible devices is far from new for hearing aid manufacturers. For many years, hearing aids have shrunk dramatically in size, as their functionality, comfort and capabilities have correspondingly increased. Instead of buttons, Starkey Hearing Technologies has developed hearing aids that are controlled by natural gestures. Other devices use GPS and cloud-based technology to personalise settings for geotagged locations.

And from audio to visual: plastic electronics are now being used in smart contact lenses. Impregnated with OLEDs, these have been invested in by Google, Samsung and Sony for applications that include blood glucose level monitoring, as well as vision correction and enhancement.

Meanwhile, inside our bodies, organic thin-film transistors (OTFTs) are being used as bio-sensors which, when placed in a patient’s body, can be used to predict a stroke, an asthma attack or to prompt a diabetic patient to take their insulin.

Electronic medtech devices of the future

We are still only just discovering the possible range of uses of invisible electronic medical devices; but we’ve certainly come a long way from wearable step counters. The technology will inevitably continue to develop as it does in any sector – to suit the rising demands of the consumer.

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