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Wearables, wearable sensors – what’s new now?

It seems every other day we read about new wearables or wearable sensors coming to market, not to mention all the bullish research reports about the expected enormous market growth of wearables. These are exciting times! So are wearables at the peak of the “Hype Cycle”?

According to this posting we may even be passed the peak, also supported by the recent appearance of some negative press like this NY Times article. Are we then entering the “Trough of Disillusionment” phase of the Hype Cycle for wearables? Maybe not, there are new exciting things still to come.

Get ready for Medical-Grade Wearables

In analyzing the current wearables and wearable sensors market, it’s important to distinguish between Consumer Market Wearables (which is what we have mostly seen to date), and the emerging category of “Medical-Grade Wearables”, a term that is showing up more and more in articles online.

What are the main differences as we consider the two categories of wearables? Both may certainly fit under the “Digital Health” rubric. BUT, Medical-Grade Wearables are considered medical devices which are regulated by the FDA, and therefore subjected to higher standards of scrutiny — (MUCH higher) for safety, efficacy and security. (The FDA is paying attention and is planning to hire additional scientists to help review medical-grade wearables).

Consumer Market Wearables are typically (all else being equal) “easier” to bring to market quickly. Don’t get me wrong, bringing any product to market is hard, but bringing a medical device to market is harder, a lot more expensive and takes a longer time.

The building of a Medical-Grade Wearable

My expertise as a researcher lies in the area of neuroscience/sensorimotor control/balance function/rehabilitation sciences. Specifically, my work in wearables began as a research project around 15 years ago — before it was considered a category — in my lab, the Injury Analysis and Prevention Lab at the NeuroMuscular Research Center at Boston University. Several of our projects involved wearables.

One of the projects involved the role of foot pressure in balance control, the dissertation topic of Peter Meyer, a PhD student of mine at the time. The technology we co-invented, today called Walkasins, is a wearable sensory prosthesis to replace lost foot pressure sensation in patients who have sensory peripheral neuropathy and balance problems.

Meet Walkasins

Walkasins consist of a thin shoe-sole insert that measures pressure under the foot reflecting the person’s state of balance. Sensory information in the form of gentle vibrations are delivered to the skin through a strap worn just above the ankle. The user can learn to interpret the vibration signals to control balance, it becomes a “new” balance sense.

A subgroup of patients with peripheral neuropathy who experience balance problems will benefit from using the device. Once registered with the FDA, Walkasins should become available on a prescription basis.

View the first Walkasins prototype and listen as Lars describes the process to create its better, faster, smaller, cheaper and simpler successor made possible by the emergence of MEMS sensors, faster low-power microprocessors, 3D printers and other new design tools.

Hear Lars speak at MobCon Digital Health 2016.

Photo courtesy of lzf.