Bionic dog: Wearables are invading wardrobes – and not just for people. Picture credit: anaxeos
by Padraig Belton
Sarah Steele is a researcher at Jesus College, Cambridge, and a young mother.
She spends her days at a keyboard, and her evenings lifting a four year old. And one day, her back started killing her.
“My back was problematic and I needed something,” she says. So she found a posture monitor, which connects to her smartphone.
“I got it off Amazon, next day delivery,” says Dr Steele.
She wears it “mainly at my desk,” she says, “but also when walking to and from nursery.”
Dr Steele uses a wearable posture monitor to keep her aligned. Picture credit: Sarah Steele
“Basically it yells at me when I am writing, gives me reminders and tracks my behaviour, and gives me data on how much I am improving” through an app on her smartphone, she explains.
“In the time I have been using it, my back has certainly improved.”
Her monitor, called an Upright Go, is made by an Israeli startup called Upright, which calls it a digital posture coach.
The company says half of its users found their posture improved so much their back pain completely went away.
Upright values: The monitor constantly reminds you to correct your posture. Picture credit: Upright
In 1989’s Back to the Future II, Marty McFly wears self-lacing ‘Air Max II’ trainers.
In January 2019, Nike released an update of the real thing, which lets you adjust your shoelaces from your smartphone (and were actually called Nike Adapt)
Wearables are with us.
There were 593 million connected wearable devices in the world in 2018, according to Statista, up from 325 million in 2016.
By 2021, this is expected to reach 929 million.
With the roll-out of 5G networks, wearables will become 50 times faster at exchanging data. They won’t need to rely on Bluetooth connections, and will be much more reliable.
As storage and processing moves increasingly to the cloud, wearables will shrink – yet house more sensors.
In short, they may be everywhere - our clothes, our shoes, and our pets.
Phone conversations through a baseball cap
With a button on the baseball cap’s visor, you can answer calls, or play music.
This is the ZEROi, made in Seoul by a start-up called Zeroilab.
“The convergence of fashion and tech,” says the company’s Aaron Park.
There is a microphone in the visor, and four bone conduction speakers around the sides.
Bone conduction is a technology that brings sound to your inner ear by making bones in your skull vibrate.
It lets you hear digital conversations and music without earphones.
Over the past two years, the start-up has raised US$180,000 in capital split between Kickstarter and Makuake, a Japanese crowdfunding site.
The most difficult task, says Mr Park, was finding a way to sew the hat, visor, and crown, without disconnecting electric cables.
These connect the bone conduction speakers to a circuit board in the visor.
A foldable cap for travelling is in development.
Wearables for pets
Toni Koutu, who founded a startup in Helsinki called anaxeos in 2016, has four dogs.
They "are different ages, and I walk them at the same time," he says.
One day, he started wondering "is it good enough for my oldest and youngest dog?"
The Internet of Dogs (IoD): Fashion conscious hounds can also monitor their heart rate. Picture credit: anaxeos
Previously Mr Koutu worked for 13 years as an engineer at Nokia, and volunteered in animal welfare on the side.
So he invented a wearable device for dogs. It monitors their heart rate, daily exercise, and weighs 48 grams. The weight of two slices of bread.
The IoD he calls it — the Internet of Dogs.
The device has five sensors, and transmits data into the cloud, with analytics dog owners can access through an app.
He says it is now possible to apply artificial intelligence to the data, which “gives us a little bit different way to understand dogs”.
And what if, much more worryingly, you can’t find your pet?
“We have a GPS for that, so you can find your escape artist right away,” says Mr Koutu.
A running and skiing coach
Christer Nordström found himself coaching his son’s cross-country skiing team in Stockholm.
As he had a tech background, he decided to develop wearable sensors to monitor their training, while keeping them from getting injured.
It was his hobby, until he met Magnus Jonsson, who was training for Vasaloppet - a cross-country skiing race with over 100,000 skiers.
The two of them decided to form a startup - Racefox - to give cross-country skiiers and runners real-time feedback on their movements.
Racefox then developed an AI coach that draws on all the data gathered from continuously monitoring training, and gives feedback on your technique, says Racefox’s Renee Strömberg.
You can “compare yourself to your past self, and see how to break patterns and improve,” with constant coaching of a type “previously only available to national team athletes,” she says.
In 2015, Camil Moldoveanu won at the Jiu-Jitsu world championships.
He also injured himself badly in the final event. His recovery included surgery and large stretches of rehab.
Camil Moldoveanu’s experience of physiotherapy prompted him to find a better solution. Picture credit: Camil Moldoveanu
Mr Moldoveanu was not impressed by his physiotherapy.
“There’s lots of exercises at home, nobody’s checking up on me, and so it was easy not to do them — then the physiotherapist told me everybody lies about doing the exercises,” he says.
So he decided to do better. And became chief executive of ReFlex, a Bucharest and Berlin based startup.
He calls this new approach tele-rehabilitation.
You have two wearable sensors monitoring exercises, as you watch a video showing you how to do each rehab exercise.
“If you keep your leg in that shadow [on your screen], you will do a perfect exercise,” he says.
“If it’s not right, you will feel vibrations” in the sensor.
Mr Moldoveanu says this will give physiotherapy patients the supervision they need.
In 2017, Vodafone created a prototype smart jacket that used a cyclist’s smartphone to send signals to tiny LED lights on their sleeves and back, making them more visible and showing which direction they’re turning.
They’ve brought other innovative wearable technology to the market, including the sleek V-SOS band which can detect someone falls and features an SOS button.
Wearables are here to stay - from exercise, to pets, to how we speak to our loved ones.
And how we access computing, the internet, and other people.
After the age of the telephone and that of the computer, next we will increasingly be left to our own (wearable) devices.
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