Mention the term “wearables” and most people conjure up a fitness-tracking watch or some kind of futuristic fashion accessory.

But wearables are much more than this.

Disabled people are increasingly relying on these gadgets to augment how they see and experience the world. On a personal note, my aunt, Wendy Poth, lost her vision when she was 7. She is currently on the waiting list to purchase OrCam’s computer-assisted vision device. These special glasses interpret nearby visual inputs, like letters and faces.

“The blind have to carry around so much extraneous crap in order to get anything done,” said Poth, who works as a therapist in Kansas City. “Wearables pose an exciting solution to all that. The technology that will soon be available exceeds my wildest dreams.”

Redg Snodgrass, the chief executive of media and events company Wearable World, said wearable makers are a different breed than most entrepreneurs. Snodgrass is convinced that the next generation of wearable tech will solve real needs, whether it’s smart glasses for the blind or a mind-controlled wheelchair for people with mobility disorders.

“The true promise of wearables is to mitigate the limitations that people have,” said Snodgrass. “As corny as it sounds, the entrepreneurs I’ve been meeting recently genuinely want to make people’s lives better.”

Editors’ Note: Wearables will be a big topic of discussion at our upcoming Mobile Summit on April 14 to 15 at the Cavallo Point Resort in Sausalito, Calif. It’s an invite-only gathering of 180 top mobile executives. 

People are prepared to pay significantly more for a device that addresses a real problem. Here are the five wearable devices that are already (or will soon) make a difference in our lives.

Saving lives with Google Glass

google-glassEven Google Glass, as expensive and awkward as it looks, serves a functional purpose. As we reported, doctors are considering wearing Glass during surgical procedures, and the New York Police Department recently received several pairs of the modernist specs to see how well it works for crime-fighting.

I have a tough time imagining fashion-conscious city dwellers wearing Google Glass. But Glass offers physicians and law enforcement a way to receive information in real time, while remaining hands free.

As Arun Matthews, the chief medical information officer at Texas Tech University and a fully-fledged Glass enthusiast, put it in a recent interview with VentureBeat, “I dream about technology being seamless and invisible but constantly present, anticipating my needs with point-of-care decision support — but getting out of the way so that physicians can be physicians.”

When the price drops, we expect to see more widespread adoption of Glass. For now, it will be a challenge to convince budget-strapped government agencies and public hospitals that Glass is worth the $1,500 price.

Mind-controlled wheelchairs

Imagine controlling a wheelchair with your thoughts, not a joystick.

Earlier this month, a startup called Emotiv hosted a “design-athon” and invited developers to use its neuro-technology to build new applications. Among them was a mind-controlled wheelchair for people with limited mobility.

Emotiv EPOC

Above: Emotiv’s EPOC product.

Image Credit: Emotiv

Emotiv has developed a headset capable of picking up electrical signals from the brain and translating them into actions. “Brain-controlled wheelchairs are low-hanging fruit — it’s 100 percent the future for wearables,” said Snodgrass.

The idea for the wheelchair came from Albert Wong, a Malaysia-based law graduate with a condition called Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. Wong’s family reached out to Emotiv to ask them to build a system so he could communicate better using a combination of mental commands, facial expressions, and head movement.

Wong passed away a few weeks ago. But Emotiv intends to continue to work closely with the disabled community and particularly with people who are paralyzed from the neck down. Read Wong’s story here.

Stress-monitoring devices for autistic children

Affectiva Q Sensor

Above: Affectiva Q Sensor

Autistic children sometimes have trouble vocalizing when they’re stressed. For this reason, teachers and parents don’t take steps to prevent a potential meltdown. Studies have also shown that about half of autistic children will wander away from home or school at some point. This is partly due to stress and also because they have a trickier time perceiving danger.

Two gadgets, Neumitra and Affectiva, are designed to measure physiological responses. These devices can be used for a variety of medical purposes, such as tracking patients with post-traumatic stress and anxiety disorders. These bands may also work for thousands of people with autism, making it easier for their caregivers and loved ones to track their stress levels.

Already, the Giant Steps School, an institute in Fairfield, Conn., for children with autism is testing the Affectiva band, known as the Q Sensor. According to the Autism Society of Ohio. Teachers at the school hand out the bands in class, which they use to discern exercises and activities that are most relaxing for the children.

Smart specs to help the blind read

Liat Negrin has had trouble with her vision since childhood. But on a recent day, a film crew recorded the Israeli walking into a grocery store and doing something that’s always been difficult for her — reading the ingredients on a cereal box.

Thanks to a very special pair of glasses.

Negrin sporting the OrCam glasses

Above: Liat Negrin can read this box thanks to the OrCam glasses.

Negrin is one of the first people to test a new computer-assisted vision device from Israeli startup OrCam Technologies. The glasses interpret nearby visual inputs, including letters, faces, objects, products, places, bus numbers, and traffic lights. A wearer simply points to an object in front of them, like a container of soy milk in the fridge or an approaching bus, and the device describes what it sees out loud.

At $2,500, the device is expensive, but the company is working with insurance providers on reimbursement options.

OrCam’s glasses aren’t the only smart specs in the works for the blind. A team at the University of Oxford is devising a pair, according to the New Scientist. These glasses translate visual information into images that blind people can see.

Addressing color blindness

A group of Berkeley, Calif.-based engineers is developing smart sunglasses that help color-blind people identify and better discriminate between colors. The startup EnChroma initially received funding for its research from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

EnChroma's smart specs

Above: EnChroma’s smart specs

EnChroma is selling its device to a huge potential market. The website We Are Colorblind claims that around 8 percent of the male population of the planet is color blind. Very few women are color-blind.

I spoke with a company spokesperson for a recent story, who said that color-blind wearers of Enchroma’s smart “Cx Explorer” glasses experience up to a 30 percent improvement in their ability to identify colors and a 70 percent improvement in color discrimination.

EnChroma faces competition from 2AI Labs in Boise, Id., which developed a pair of glasses that doctors use to better spot veins under the skin. These glasses, the New Scientist reports, can help color blind people by enhancing their ability to see reds and greens.

Got ideas for a follow-up post? Please let us know in the comments section below if you’ve spotted other “wearables for good.” 

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