Smart wearables

Engineers at the University of Washington are now extending the capabilities of smart wearables to help manage diseases too


Metallic jewel: The smart tattoo designed by the Massachusetts Media Lab.
Metallic jewel: The smart tattoo designed by the Massachusetts Media Lab.

Those of us who do banking on our smartwatches are aware that wearables pull off this stunt by communicating with our smartphones. Engineers at the University of Washington (UW) in the US are now extending the capabilities of such low-power embedded devices (such as wearables) to help manage diseases too. The researchers achieved this feat by introducing a new way of communication that allows devices such as brain implants, contact lenses, credit cards and smaller wearables to talk to everyday devices such as smartphones and watches.

The technology works by using wireless signal reflections to convert Bluetooth signals into Wi-Fi transmissions over the air, prompting researchers to christen it “interscatter communication”. Their research was presented on 22 August at the annual conference of the Association for Computing Machinery’s Special Interest Group on Data Communication in Brazil.

The system requires no specialized equipment, relying solely on devices like smartwatches to generate Wi-Fi signals using energy that is 10,000 times less than conventional methods. The process relies on a communication technique which allows devices to exchange information simply by reflecting existing signals. Interscatter communication uses Bluetooth, Wi-Fi or ZigBee radios embedded in common mobile devices like smartphones, watches, laptops, tablets and headsets, to serve both as sources and receivers for these reflected signals. The challenge, however, is the backscattering process, which creates a mirror image of the original wireless signal. It consumes more bandwidth and interferes with other wireless networks. To address this issue, engineers developed a technique called “single sideband backscatter”, which eliminates the bandwidth and interference problems on networks.

In a 22 August press release, Vikram Iyer, an electrical engineering doctoral student at UW, insisted that wireless connectivity for implanted devices could transform the way we manage chronic diseases. He cited the example of how a contact lens could monitor a diabetic patient’s blood sugar level in tears and send notifications to the phone when the sugar level changes.

In practice, however, smart contact lenses are constrained by the power required to run them and to send data using conventional wireless transmissions. Similarly, brain implants could treat Parkinson’s disease or stimulate organs and may one day even reanimate limbs if not constrained by power demands.

According to Joshua Smith, associate professor of electrical engineering at UW, this “interscatter communication” technique can allow implanted medical devices to use Wi-Fi, which would do away with the need to replace batteries in devices like a pacemaker or brain stimulator—this currently requires surgery and puts patients at potential risk of complications.

Undoubtedly, we are in the age of connected wearables, similar to the “Internet of Things” phenomenon. It was only last month that the Massachusetts Media Lab, in partnership with Microsoft Research, unveiled a project called DuoSkin, which uses metallic jewellery-like temporary tattoos as connected interfaces on the skin. These devices enable users to control their phones and store information on their skin while serving as a style statement.

ABI Research, a technology market intelligence company, estimates that by 2019, the world will have 780 million wearables—everything from fitness trackers and smartwatches to smart glasses, even heart monitors. The concern, however, is that as wearables become smarter and increasingly interconnected with our bodies, how susceptible they will be to hacking.

According to researchers at McAfee, a computer security software company, the weakest link in the wearables space is your mobile phone, not the actual wearable device. That’s because wearables tend to connect to your mobile device using Bluetooth. Most commonly, hackers gain access to the data on your mobile through malware-laden apps. They can use these malicious apps to make phone calls, send and receive texts and extract personal information—all without your knowledge. They can also, with the help of your wearable, track your location through GPS (global positioning system) and record any health issues you may have logged.

Security firms suggest the use of PIN codes and security software on mobile devices to thwart such dangers. Privacy, however, will continue to remain a major concern. Policymakers will have to work with user groups and manufacturers to ensure that personal data does not get hacked on cloud-enabled servers that help connect wearables.

Cutting Edge is a monthly column that explores the melding of science and technology.

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