Small companions: How wearables change our lives

They can be seen everywhere: at the wrists, in the ear, clipped to the belt. Wearables are small technical assistants who are built to collect and partially also to analyze data. Some of them collect measurable health data, for example the body temperature or the heartrate, others "only" count their user’s steps or measure the surrounding UV radiation. The fact is, however, that wearables are en vogue and are used for many different cases.


Photo: Man with smartphone and smartwatsch

Wearables like a smartphone or a SmartWatch you can see now more often; © Andriy Popov

Recording and collecting data is an activity that seems to make many people happy. Weather records date back many centuries, as well as some genealogy. Collecting data about oneself often serves as a motivational tool. The weight is recorded to see if you lose it. Writing down the kilometers you have run makes it clear whether there has been a performance increase. There is nothing new about this. New, however, is the equipment used to collect this data is. The notebook has long since outlived its usefulness. Smartphone apps or specially developed wearables help to gather and store data. Users who collect data about their own performance or bodily functions call this self-tracking or, in a broader sense, "quantified self". The latter also describes the will to improve the environment.

While top athletes have long since been capturing their own vitality parameters to improve their performance, the vast majority of people have only recently recognized these possibilities since there now are simple apps for the smartphone. Pre-installed on the devices, they invite you to count your steps or to measure your heart rate. But how is a wearable defined? Christian Stammel, founder of WT | Wearable Technologies, explains it this way: "We define 'wearables' as all electronic devices worn close to the body, on the body or even in the body. These can come in a variety of different form factors; for example a wristband, glasses or even a smart patch. Over the past years we have seen technology being integrated into all kinds of devices one can wear. Engineers are able to do this because of new innovative hardware designed to make technology wearable. From a target market perspective you can distinguish between devices within the following categories: sports&fitness, health&wellness, safety&security and lifestyle&wellness."

Photo: Woman takes a red pill

The term "wearable" also covers electronic pills that are swallowed. Equipped with small cameras, their path can be tracked through the body. A stomach ulcer or colon cancer can be diagnosed this way (symbol picture); © ginasanders

Wearable instead of visiting the doctor

Health in particular is always a hot topic of debate, because the collected data can be used by or given to a third party such as doctors, insurance companies and hospitals. This is why those parties have to meet very high demands: "Medical products have to meet very high certification standards, especially if their intended type of use is to be worn 24/7", says Stammel. He continues: "There are quite a few products on the market which can be used for health tracking purposes, like smart blood pressure cuffs etc., but which do not necessarily have CE approval or the local market equivalent. This means that a doctor is not officially allowed to use this data for his diagnosis but can use the collected data to gain insights for the anamnesis. This product category is now examined widely by health insurance companies as they offer an interesting new problem solving approach for the struggling health care system. Of course these wearable products – even if they are not medically certified - should meet all technical regulations of the market where they are being sold."

Can a wearable therefore replace a trip to the doctor? Probably not. However, the new technologies may offer an advantage for chronically ill people - for example, if the blood sugar levels or blood pressure can be checked by the physician via data transmission on a regular basis. A patient could then be asked to only visit a doctor when needed which would save resources. Additionally, certain devices could also be used in the field of rehabilitation to document the performance improvements of patients.

Whether the trend that employers or health insurance companies subsidize the use of wearables will continue, time must show. While various companies and insurers in the United States already venture down this road, in Germany there is still a discussion if the protection of data is given, or whether a community of solidarity should even subsidize such "lifestyle products". What seems certain is that the next few years will be exciting for all those who carefully follow the path of wearables and their options.

Photo: Simone Ernst; Copyright: B. Frommann

©B. Frommann

Simone Ernst