Health

Brave new wearable world: Crowdsourcing health, and the coming battle of bio-signals

Image Credit: OMsignal

Stéphane Marceau is the co-founder of OMsignal, a wearable tech innovator.

Back in 2008, my co-founder Frederic Chanay and I took our first stab at developing a rough prototype for a bracelet with an accelerometer and skin conductance sensor that connected to an iPhone via Bluetooth. We had the financial backing of a major global communications company, we had the motivation; but most importantly, we were committed to our unwavering conviction that wearables were the future of mobile health and wellness.

brave new worldDuring this early experimentation in the wearable space (so early the word itself hadn’t yet been coined), we experienced first-hand the challenge of creating a compelling wearable that turns analog, human-derived signals into meaningful digital data — a deeply intricate exercise, which, turns out, requires a lot more than mere conviction.

That prototype never made it to market..

We have since then continued to chip away at our ignorance. Fast-forward six years — two and a half years after founding OMsignal, with a small but multidisciplinary team of medical and bio-engineering scientists, hardware and software engineers, product design specialists as well as smart-textile engineers and fashion artisans — we now know a great deal more about what it takes to develop the science, technology, and user experience required for a fully integrated consumer wearable product.

Our hard-earned experience has only solidified our belief in the value and profound potential of wearables. Call them insights, call them predictions, call them truths: here is a closer look at what we’ve learned.

Connecting with our inner selves

At its core, consumer technology has always been about understanding and controlling the world around us — this may explain why, as an increasingly tech-obsessed society, we are now compulsively drawn toward external stimuli.

Wearables, on the other hand, remind us to turn our attention inward and reconnect with our core selves, enabling mindfulness and self-cognizance. Biometrics are a window into our body, our health, and our state of being.

The seamless integration of such a self-centric technology into everyday life is where the real opportunity lies. Consumer wearables with bio-sensing capabilities appeal to our intrinsic desire to change our behavior and lead a more active and fulfilling life. We can discover and challenge our physical boundaries, uncover our inner athletes, and outperform our own goals. We can even track, monitor and manage our emotive and physical state to optimize our personal and professional growth.

In the words of Aldous Huxley: “There is only one corner of the universe that you are certain of improving and that is your own self.” Wearables are THE tool for self-improvement, or as we like to call it, self-mastery. 

Personal dashboards for everyday life

You wouldn’t drive a car without a speedometer, RPM, or fuel gauge, right?

Similarly, bio-signals translated into meaningful gauges can inform you on how to operate at peak efficiency, recommending for example when to slow down, speed up, or take a break. In other words, bio-signal-driven wearables provide you with a personal dashboard to help steer your life.

The human body is continually generating a myriad of bio-signals. These signals, when captured and streamed in real time and in real life, are subject to infinite artifacts. In fact, one of the most important challenges for wearable product developers is to conquer this daunting signal-to-noise ratio for actual, “real life” use cases.

yoga

As it happens, OMsignal’s core business is to gather and interpret biological signals and to turn it into actionable feedback or insights. We have built a number of custom tools to process, analyze, tag, filter, and calibrate the signals we acquire from the human body in order to convert them from data to actionable feedback, micro-decision support or life prescriptions.

Biometrics, like ECG, EMG, EEG, and temperature are the most obvious type of variable to originate from bio-signals. But going deeper, psychometrics (which we like to call “emotics”) can suggest shades of emotions or attitudinal predispositions derived from specific biological patterns, sometimes from multiple bio-signals. And spatiometrics (ok, I just made that term up) can involve recognizing the body and its movements in space, and estimating the kinetic energy of different body parts. Finally, deep bio-signal obviously contains medically relevant information as well. In short, deep bio-signal is the raw material from which to derive various types of actionable human insights, including emotics and spaciometrics and medical information.

Add contextual data into the mix from relevant applications and connected devices (ambient temperature, weather, population patterns, news and events, location, calling patterns, social proximity, etc.), and the insights into bio-signals become exponentially more targeted and valuable.

Clothing: the future of wearables

Clothing is the only wearable that conforms to our everyday lifestyle over the course of a lifetime. We’ve been covering our body since we became aware of its existence.

The physics of fabric and the inconspicuous power of smart textile technology are a match made in heaven: Formfitting and adaptable, bio-tracking clothing can access various body parts to trigger different biometrics, picking up signals where they happen and thus maximizing their clarity and meaning. For example, reading a heart signal from extremities is very different from reading it on the chest. All signals are not created equal. Some are more continuous and contain deeper nuances and richer meaning. Others are more “shallow” or largely inferred or interpolated (averages and assumptions), with limited informational content.

ferrari cockpitWith clothing, you can read bio-signals at the source, which can yield richer, deeper interpretations.

More often than not, and perhaps mistakenly, textiles are thought of as belonging to their own category of materials — a separate medium with a defined set of features and usages. But the truth is that the line between textiles and hardware is beginning to blur with the advent of conductive yarn, soft or printed electronics, and MEMs (microelectromechanical systems). Certainly from a product development point of view, textiles are simply a more organic, malleable type of hardware  – one that the tech world is just starting to learn again (or to learn from a very different vantage point and product intent). This convergence of textile and of more conventional hardware will enable the seamless and mass integration of more and more sensors into textile and ultimately the development of yarn-like electronics.

Textile, essentially, is the ultimate wearable medium.

Some might say that a key difficulty in merging electronics and textiles would be the consolidation of their currently separate supply chains. But manufacturers and ODMs on both sides are beginning to see the opportunity. Flextronics, an OMsignal investor, is a perfect example.

Beyond the explosion of sensor embedding into clothing, textile-based constructions will over time also enable the integration of various degrees of flexible display, one day even possibly challenging the phones’ supremacy …

Wearable tech should learn fashion (and vice-versa)

Clothing is the largest industry of things we wear. As such, the apparel industry represents the largest potential distribution network for wearables. Consequently, it would be in every fashion retailer’s best interest to learn how to market digitally enabled products, as well as master the higher level of product complexity involved, especially from a sales training and customer support standpoint.

By the same token, electronic retailers should learn to market clothing-style form factors with their own set of intricacies, from body sizing to seasonal collections. The blurring of lines between tech and textiles doesn’t stop at the product level — it represents an enormous opportunity (with disruptive risk) for retailers, for lifestyle tech brands, and especially for the lifestyle apparel and clothing industry.

What we wear is a reflection of who we feel we are and/or a projection of how we want to be perceived by others. Wearables in the form of apparel become compelling, identity-affirming vehicles and a means of expression. Some will signify strength and inspire a sense of empowerment. Some will denote a certain awareness for health and wellness. Others still will indicate a commitment to physical fitness.

Acting both as a second skin and as a digital and data-driven mirror, wearables will remind us of who we aspire to be. Arguably, this ability to market aspiration is why Nike, Under Armor, Ralph Lauren, and Lululemon and others in this category will be forces to be reckoned with in the wearable space — provided they can develop core hardware, acquire digital product know-how, and up their digital tech mojo substantially in a short order.

An easier path to becoming your best self

Step on a scale after weeks (or years) of unrestrained overindulgence and there’s no ruder awakening or harsher recipe for self-awareness.

Now imagine receiving biofeedback continually — beyond the number of steps taken on a daily basis. Heart rate, blood pressure, temperature fluctuations, breathing patterns, physical stress levels, calorie/energy burn rate, and other physiological and psycho-emotional data, all calling attention to the state of your health and demonstrating how it is evolving over time. What were once sporadic surges of self-awareness and willpower become a stream of engaging nudges, and eventually a permanent mindset and new habits leading to informed, incremental change, self-control and data-driven life prescriptions for better health and happier self.

As a result fitness buffs push themselves further. Chronically ill patients make changes in their lifestyle. High-achieving professionals cease being slaves to their own stress. In other words, everyday people get back into the driver’s seat of their own life, all driven by their innate desire to improve.

Crowdsourcing health and wellness

The increasing, and eventually ubiquitous use of wearables, as well as the constant streaming of bio-signals into the open cloud will gradually pave the way for crowdsourcing of health and wellness—arguably it is the answer to the “why” or the ultimate destination of wearables.

Your health may be Apple's next project.

With widely available real-life bio-signal analysis, wearables will facilitate the path to wellbeing and fitness by providing practitioners with a new level of transparency into a patient’s condition or into the objective efficacy of various treatments/drugs. Regular people and professionals alike will come to rely on these carefully deciphered and increasingly accurate bio-analytics, resulting in tremendous insights and inviting the cross-pollination of disciplines. Doctors might consider data-driven psychometrics in their diagnoses. Fitness coaches could develop smarter and more targeted programs based around biometrics and spatiometrics, while nutritionists could provide sounder advice and meal plans according to metabolic patterns data.

Aside from their practical applications, wearables as a cluster of omnipresent technologies that enable the live collection of bio-data may also create an important wedge in the healthcare system itself—despite how impervious it has proven to be in the face of disruptive forces to date. Democratized wearable and the resulting ubiquitous live bio-signal in the cloud could enable greater transparency around outcomes of health treatments as well as new forms of diagnosis and new forms of remote or personal care. Obsolete economic and care models with fundamentally flawed incentives as well as regulatory policies designed for a different time, may all have to be rethought as real life bio-signal becomes pervasive and widely available,

The crowdsourcing of health and wellness may happen fast, as it will bring about a virtuous cycle of exponential adoption. The more people use wearables and stream their bio-signals into the cloud, the better the data set will be to uncover global patterns as well as personal insights. The larger and deeper the data set, the easier it will be to anticipate and predict health events and prescribe effective action at the right moment. The increased benefits to users will draw more people to wear more wearables, thus perpetuating the cycle.

Wearables as baseline consumer expectation

As flexible electronics merge into textile-based constructions, and eventually become intrinsic to the fiber itself, people will come to implicitly expect their clothes to be connected, bio-sensing devices designed to help them live a healthier, fitter and happier life. Bio-tracking technology woven into fabric and sewn into seams will become the same baseline expectation as buttons are on a pair of jeans.

Wearables will then emerge as something we just depend on and take for granted, like electricity. We’ll count on the organic grid of bio-signals to be at our disposal at all times, whether to alert us that a cold epidemic is emerging at our childrens’ school or to inform us that we are personally at risk of a stroke within the hour unless we immediately rest and take a breath.

Wearables as the sun in the IOT (Internet of Things) solar system

If something can be connected, chances are that in time, it will be.

More and more, the proliferation of connected devices is allowing a whole new level of control over the world around us. Wearables will evolve as the highly personal nexus of digital control over our connected world. Ultimately, what you wear will be at the center of this connected universe, driving the behavior of all other connected devices impacting our health, convenience comfort and entertainment.

By decoding our physiogical or emotive state of the moment, wearables will — either implicitly or with the twist of a wrist — give us control over our environment. Better yet, our environment — the lighting, the music or temperature in our home, for example — will be optimized in real time based on particular bio-signals.

Our surroundings will implicitly adjust to readings streaming from our wearables.

The battle over bio-signals

Google is looking for third parties to develop wearables on its platform through Android Wear. Apple is looking to become the go-to health hub for consumers through Healthbook. Samsung, Intel and other giants are deploying massive capital to ensure their role and relevance in this brave new wearable world. And all the while thousands of startups around the world are now developing wearables designed to capture as much our bio-signals as our imagination.

Fitbit Flex colorsThe train has left the station: Ubiquitous and live bio-signal will soon be a reality and most tech-powered brands have started to commit to that brave new wearable world.

In other words, tech incumbents and challengers are all jumping in, eager to contribute to and profit from the biggest technological wave since mobile, hoping to protect from unwelcome disruptors, or to challenge — even dethrone — major tech brands.

This is the beginning of the battle over bio-signals.

Live bio-signals acquired organically, passively and dynamically through wearables will become the new gold. Contrary to markers such as genetic information or blood samples, bio-signal is dynamic and continuous and lends itself to enable live predictions and live pattern recognitions.

Bio-signal will be core user content for consumer digital platforms

Bio-signal could be as monetizable as search intent, as it can be collected passively and interpreted into emotions, purchase propensities, etc. It is of high intrinsic value to consumers of course as an enabler of health.. Bio-signals will also open up the realm of emotics, a whole new dimension of content for social applications (e.g. sharing mood-related visualization on Facebook) or even for e-commerce experiences (e.g. tailored recommendations based on buying propensity or product reviews based on bio-signals during usage on Amazon).

But given the deeply intimate and confidential nature of this data, consumers are likely to choose only one or a few select brands over others to commit to and invest in as the central guardians and traffic managers of their personal bio-signals. Brand trust and loyalty will play a big part in which platforms dominate the space.

Whichever startups and digital brands do gain this privileged and highly coveted access to our bio-signals are going to have to continually earn this right by changing our lives meaningfully (and in a frictionless way) for the better.

But at this early stage in the game, the race for established industry players and new innovators is about getting consumers to wear and stream their data, to build and acquire a large, organic data set of bio-signals from which to deliver valuable insights. And there is no better way to do this than through bio-sensing-enabled wearables that weave technology into life. Which, umm, is what we do at OMsignal.

Let the battle over bio-signals begin.

More information:

OMsignal is apparel that continuously tracks your biometrics to help you connect to a fitter, healthier, happier you. Embedded sensors in the apparel monitor your heart rate, breathing and activity while the Omsignal app displays your ... read more »

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