Wearable tech has been a slowly rising trend over the past decade. Most wearables these days are health-related, and tracking the body is a difficult task. We’ve seen tech such as sleep trackers and fitness trackers prove beneficial for consumers, but wearables have yet to achieve their full potential. With graphene, that may just become possible.
Graphene is well-known as a “wonder material,” and looking at its properties, it’s easy to see why. Graphene is one of the thinnest materials known to man; it is made up of a single layer of carbon atoms, all connected and interlaced into a lattice, honeycomb-like formation. In addition to being thin, graphene is also incredibly light. But don’t let its size fool you — it’s nearly 200 times stronger than steel, and possess technological capabilities far beyond our current materials provide.
Graphene is excellent at conducting heat and electricity, and the material is a frontrunner in replacing copper and silicon in tech devices. For instance, graphene is particularly good as a sensor, and is being researched for a variety of sensor types, including for gas, DNA, pH levels, environmental contamination, pressure, and more.
Graphene can also potentially impact wearables by powering them for greater capability and lasting power. Using graphene to create next-gen flexible batteries, University of Glasgow researchers have successfully created a graphene supercapacitor that is capable of recharging using solar power and discharges enough energy to power advanced wearable devices.
The most recent and perhaps most important breakthrough in graphene wearables to date were featured at the 2019 Mobile World Congress (MWC) in their Graphene Pavillion. Research nonprofit organization ICFO presented revolutionary graphene-based health-monitoring wearables; these devices are less like the watches and bands that currently occupy much of the wearable tech space, and instead acts like a dermal patch. This means that the graphene wearable can be applied directly to the skin, which can result in improved readings when monitoring health metrics.
ICFO supposes that this graphene tech would be useful in monitoring hydration and blood oxygen levels. This would be particularly helpful for when people are in extreme conditions, such as at the Earth’s poles, high altitudes, or anywhere far from civilization. In such situations, someone could apply the patch, which would use graphene to create miniscule sensors, circuits, and batteries to power the wearable and allow it to track internal data.
The patch would then be paired with a smartphone to allow for real-time communication, and will notify users when they are at risk of dehydration or other severe medical statuses. The patches will also be made to be disposable, and the researchers at ICFO are working to ensure that all components, even necessary adhesives, are biodegradable and environmentally friendly.
With the newly revealed patch-like wearable, graphene is beginning to show the world how it can disrupt various tech-based industries, and the healthcare and medical fields are sure to benefit from graphene research. With the wonder material in its hands, the wearable tech industry is sure to continue making leaps and bounds moving forward.
Helmets are simple pieces of equipment with a singular function: to protect the wearer’s head. So when it comes to increasing safety capabilities, helmets are ripe for such improvement. Already, we are seeing smart helmets pop up for use in recreational activities like biking and motorcycling. But in particular, soldiers would benefit greatly from the development of smart helmets. Smart helmets would be greatly beneficial in helping prevent serious brain damage and hearing loss, two of the most prevalent dangers for soldiers.
Smart helmets for recreational use, such as biking or motorcycling, have adopted a number of safety capabilities that could be carried over to smart combat helmets. High-end helmet designs have even boasted 360 degrees of visibility, achieved by rear-facing cameras. For soldiers on the battlefield, this would greatly increase spatial awareness and help soldiers avoid danger. A popular feature of smart helmets also includes built-in navigation systems — for soldiers, always being aware of your position is another way to increase awareness and overall safety when in treacherous environments.
India has already begun developing smart helmets with similar spatial awareness capabilities for their soldiers. The helmet features thermal imaging, night-vision, a camera, and can help soldiers identify vehicles and others in the field, able to distinguish between friend and foe via geo-tagging technology.
In the UK, researchers are beginning the process of developing smart combat helmets that can prevent hearing loss. Soldiers are exposed to a significant amount of noise at high volumes, so much so that hearing loss has become a standard occupational hazard for armed forces. To gather information, researchers have been coming up with innovative technologies to record noise levels.
Nottingham Trent University’s Advanced Textiles Research Group has developed microelectromechanical system microphones (MEMS), which are capable of measuring noise levels for extended periods of time. The idea is to integrate the devices with acoustic yarn pieces that can go over each ear in order to unobtrusively record the sound data. With this first step, prevention of hearing loss in combat helmets will soon become a reality.
The US Army has also been experimenting with smart helmets, with a heavy focus on preventing the head damage that has become typical of a soldier’s experience, namely head trauma and hearing loss. In 2017, they developed the Integrated Head Protection System (IHPS), a lightweight ballistic helmet. It functions similarly to the polyethylene Enhanced Combat Helmet that is already being used in the field, but features protective add-ons like a jaw protector and a visor. More recently, the US Army began to test a prototype helmet that is 40% lighter than the IHPS and just as strong.
While particular areas of smart helmet features are being improved upon individually, it is only a matter of time before we see a form of protective headgear that combines these capabilities. In only a few years’ time, soldiers may have access to helmets that have increased protective capabilities for both hearing and physical damage, as well as heightened awareness technology. When this happens, soldiers will be much safer when operating in the field.
As personal health technologies such as wearable fitness and sleep trackers increase in popularity, we continue to see advancements in the convenient modern tech that allows us to monitor our health in increasingly complex and accurate ways. These steps forward leave us asking ourselves about the other ways we can use technology to improve our health. Recently, science has discovered that our intestines are much more important to our overall health than we previously thought, and as a result, we may just see gut trackers become the next big thing.
The importance of the gut stems from the enteric nervous system within our gastrointestinal tract. It is a lining made up of over 100 million nerve cells that span from the esophagus to the rectum that covers the entire gastrointestinal tract, and is commonly called our “second brain.” The gut has a direct relationship with the actual brain, and after sensing food or bacteria it will inform the nervous system, which relays this information to the brain and can affect behavior. Because of this connection, we are beginning to realize how we might treat particular disorders and conditions that may have links to the brain and to stress, such as obesity, anorexia, autism, and PTSD.
While our deeper understanding of the gut’s importance is still relatively fresh, the development of gut tracking technology has already begun to make headway, though most deal primarily with digestion. FoodMarble, a digestive health tech startup, is one of the first to produce a digestive tracker: a pocket-sized breath analysis device for users to track their digestion in real time.
When food isn’t quite fully digested, it ferments in the gut and produces hydrogen, most of which is exhaled naturally. FoodMarble users manually input what they’ve eaten and what relevant symptoms they are experiencing into an app, and the breath test is able to discern if the food has been fully digested. As you use the tracker more, the app will give you greater insights into how different types of foods, sleep quality, and stress levels affect their digestive health.
Other advancements in gut tracking are slightly trickier than a breath test. It’s hard to say what a “wearable” gut tracker would look like, but the closest thing to it is an ingestible tech pill developed by researchers at RMIT University in Australia. The pill closely tracks digestion through measuring the gases commonly found in the digestive system, such as hydrogen, oxygen and carbon dioxide.
Testing has already revealed new information to researchers. One such discovery is that the stomach releases oxidizing chemicals to break down foreign compounds that stay in the stomach longer than normal. The pill is a much less invasive option for monitoring gut health and human trials have been successful, so it may not be long before doctors are regularly using ingestible pills to help patients with gut problems.
Gut tracking options these days tend to have a purely digestive slant, but there remains great potential for gut trackers to dive into the gut-brain connection that is relevant to a multitude of issues. What if we had a gut tracker that could monitor the enteric nervous system and recognize when the synapses are being relayed from the brain and affecting the way the gut behaves? We are not quite there, but FoodMarble’s digestion tracker and the newly developed ingestible pill to track gut-gases are significant steps forward. Trackers that can monitor the gut-brain connection could very well be just around the corner.
Even with layers upon layers of thick clothing, there is only so much regular fabrics can do to fight the cold. So how can we make our clothes do more to keep us warm? While it may seem like a less obvious avenue for technological advancement, the use of lightweight and conductive fibers to create smart thermal clothing have the potential to create new breakthroughs for insulation. We are already seeing promising advancements in smart thermal clothing, and it has the potential to much more effectively protect people from cold and even detect the onset of cold-related conditions, such as hypothermia or frostbite.
Smart thermal clothing entered the tech landscape years ago, but many of the developed incarnations at the time were bulky and inefficient, using invasive and uncomfortable wires or large batteries. For smart thermal clothing, the ultimate goal is to be completely unobstructive, regulating a person’s temperature with little to no inconvenience. As we continue to make advancements in specific lightweight fibers, such as ones made with graphene, we are beginning to see truly viable forms of smart thermal clothing.
SKIINCore is one such clothing range that boasts effective smart thermal clothing. Their products, which include a thin long-sleeve top and leggings, utilize a conductive yarn that is sandwiched between a sweat-wicking synthetic inner layer and a heat-trapping wool outer layer. It uses a small non-intrusive 56g battery for heating power, able to keep the wearer warm for up to eight hours. Users can adjust temperatures with a smartphone app, or let the “smart” in smart thermal clothing shine by allowing the clothes to automatically adjust heat levels based on environment and body temperatures.
Another example of exemplary smart thermal clothing comes from Directa Plus, an Italian company that makes graphene-based products. They recently launched two textile collections utilizing their Graphene Plus (G+) material, made from a patented Pristine Graphene Nanoplatelet design. Their G+ membranes can be applied to a flexible range of clothing, including sportswear, citywear or workwear. The use of graphene-based materials increase heat conductivity and spreads the heat evenly throughout the material to regulate overall body temperature. The G+ membrane also amplifies electrical conductivity, allowing for accurate transmission of data from the body.
With such advancements in smart thermal clothing, and smart clothes in general becoming an increasingly popular trend, the future for these heat-regulating garments looks bright. Already we are seeing effective smart thermal clothing options for mainstream consumers. But the utilization of lightweight fibers like graphene and other inconspicuous conductive materials in clothing still have much room for growth, and it seems that very soon in the future we will see smart thermal clothing become truly intelligent.
Sometimes, a person’s biggest worry can simply be whether or not they’re getting a good night’s sleep. So it makes sense that sleep trackers have become such a popular and well-received technology.
The basic premise of a sleep tracker is straightforward. The device typically offers users two main pieces of information: how long they’ve slept and what the quality of their sleep was. These conclusions are reached by collecting various kinds of physical data during sleep, and through this information users can adjust their sleep schedules or sleep habits accordingly, leading to a healthier sleeping experience.
But tracking sleep is notoriously difficult; after all, most trackers are worn around your wrists or midsection, and not the brain–which is where all sleep activity occurs.
When it comes to tracking sleep, scientific sleep studies are considered the most accurate method. Participants in these studies are attached to wires that monitor brain waves, rapid eye movements, oxygen levels, breathing patterns, heart rate and more. One study can produce over 1,000 pages of data, and it’s no surprise that the direct analysis of brain activity by professionals is the definitive way to monitor sleep. But it is expensive and a hassle, while wearable or bedside sleep devices offer a convenient and affordable way to track sleep.
Since sleep trackers cannot monitor brain waves, improvements are focused on other data that is possible for the devices to record. The best sleep trackers are able to record much of the same data that sleep studies do, primarily tracking heart rate and breathing patterns to determine sleep behavior, and some sleep trackers can also provide environmental data including light levels, sound and temperature. Even further, trackers can prompt users to answer lifestyle questions that might affect sleep such as diet, stress, alcohol consumption and so on. Evidently, there are a multitude of ways that trackers can record sleep data, but the question then remains: If sleep studies are the most accurate form of sleep measurement, how close do sleep trackers come through their compensating methods?
The reality is that until sleep trackers are able to monitor brain waves, they will remain, as experts say, more of a guesstimate than an accurate measurement of sleep. However, this doesn’t mean that sleep trackers are useless. Sleep trackers still provide plenty of insight based on the other data it collects.
The main reason for performing a sleep study is usually to diagnosis sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea. If a person is worried that they might have a serious sleep disorder, this is likely the best route to go. But for the rest who are just looking for ways to improve their sleep, the information and guidance offered by sleep trackers is more than enough to do so. In addition, the act of tracking increases mindfulness, which encourages people to make better sleep choices.
As technology evolves, it becomes able to perform more complex tasks with less effort. It’s not far-fetched to say that with time, sleep trackers could realistically become as accurate as sleep studies, giving consumers full control over their sleep.
Fitness trackers are everywhere. From Fitbits to Mi Bands to Apple Watches, tech companies are jumping onto the bandwagon, for better or worse. The results (and consequences) have been wide-ranging: on the one hand, fitness trackers do seem to spur people to exercise more. On the other hand, fitness trackers have also revealed the locations of classified bases when military personnel unknowingly shared the details of their workouts with other users.
But do fitness trackers really work in the first place? Aside from their role as an incentive for exercise, can fitness trackers live up to the claims of their manufacturers?
The answers are mixed. While fitness trackers can measure certain indicators very accurately, they don’t always do so well with others. For instance, a Stanford study found that although fitness trackers could measure heart rate very well (the error rate was less than five percent), this was not the case for other factors, such as calorie burn. Researchers found that when it came to energy expenditure, the least accurate device was off by an average of 93 percent. Even the best device had an error rate of around 27 percent.
Granted, the Stanford study was not the end-all of fitness trackers, as the sample size was fairly small (60 volunteers used the seven most popular trackers). The research team also found that even small factors, like skin and BMI, affected accuracy, raising a troubling question: are manufacturers making claims that don’t measure up?
The answer might be less straightforward than you may think. An earlier study conducted by Japan’s National Institute of Health and Nutrition had 19 subjects testing 12 trackers–at the same time. Over the course of 24 hours, scientists found that while participants burned an average of 2,093 calories, fitness trackers deviated from the norm significantly, by as much as +/- 200 kilocalories. When volunteers tested the devices over a period of 15 days, researchers still found that the trackers reported consistently lower outputs (up to 800 kilocalories) than the actual calorie burn as measured by the team.
Even so, the Japanese group concluded that for the average person, fitness trackers were quite useful. Unlike in a research setting, where accuracy is paramount, the average user simply needs relative results: so long as someone knows whether they’re burning more or less calories than yesterday or last week, it’s not a huge issue. Besides, a good fitness tracker could be what they need to help themselves build consistent, lasting habits.
Sleep, on the other hand, is a whole different story. Though trackers can distinguish when someone is sleeping or awake thanks to their accelerometers, they don’t really have any good way of determining whether you are in deep REM sleep or simply dozing lightly.
In a 2011 study, researchers compared Fitbit data to a polysomnography test, the gold standard of evaluating sleep quality. While Fitbits tended to overestimate the sleep time of adults by 43 minutes, they often underestimated the sleep time of children by 109 minutes. More importantly, as one scientist pointed out, fitness trackers have no way to distinguish between the stages of sleep, given that such activity occurs solely in the brain. Such brain waves are measured by electroencephalography (EEG) machines–not heart-rate monitors.
As in fitness, trackers can help people pay attention to the quality and amount of their sleep; at the same time, given that some sleep disorders, like sleep apnea, are life-threatening, false claims on a sleep tracker could have some serious ramifications. For instance, a patient could forego seeing a sleep specialist simply based on positive (and inaccurate) data from a tracker, allowing their condition to worsen over time.
In the end, fitness trackers are something of a mixed bag. While they can track the more obvious indicators of health (such as heart rate) very clearly, they are less adept at measuring more subtle (but equally important) factors, primarily sleep quality and calorie burn. It’s certainly possible that manufacturers will be able to refine their devices as time goes on, but as it stands right now, it’s best to take the claims of fitness trackers with a grain of salt.