Biosensors and Beyond: Who's Who in Wearables

The diversity of the current wearables market cannot be understated.

someone using a smartwatch
Artem Varnitsin/

In part one of this two-part series, we unpacked the "then and now" of wearables, dating back to the year 1778, and looked at the current state of wearable technology. Next, we'll explore a glimpse of who's who in wearables.

Who's Who in Wearables

The diversity of the current wearables market cannot be understated: the technology spans capabilities from step counting to sleep tracking to early Alzheimer's disease detection.

The Early Detection of Neurodegenerative Diseases (EDoN) initiative — a partnership between Alzheimer's Research UK and Boston University — is leveraging currently available technology like smartphone apps, smartwatches and headbands to collect and analyze data in EDoN's own Analytic Hub. The researchers hope to use large, globally collected amounts of prospective digital and clinical data to develop "robust machine-learning models" that might one day be able to detect the "fingerprints" that signal early Alzheimer's or other dementia-related diseases.

Consumer wellness startup Oura Health is looking to reach more than just so-called "gadget fans and fitness enthusiasts" with its Oura sleep tracking ring. Advanced sensor technology goes hand-in-hand with a minimal design to provide users with personalized insights. Even the sleekest of smartwatches can be uncomfortable to sleep in; Oura redefines the wearable as a simple ring, capturing readiness, sleep and activity scores to help users optimize their routines. In two studies, Oura was validated with a 99.9% reliability versus medical-grade electrocardiogram (ECG) in determining resting heart rate and 98.4% accuracy in determining heart rate variability versus medical-grade ECG.

Since winning the space race in 1969 and successfully landing a rover on Mars in early 2021, NASA has turned its eye closer to home. Astronaut health is, understandably, a high priority for the organization, but it's logistically impossible to launch a diagnostic lab into space. To problem-solve, NASA used nano chemical sensors and silicon chips to create The Mask — a device eerily reminiscent of a futuristic C-PAP machine — that can evaluate an exhaled human breath for markers of disease. The Mask detects characteristic odors of disease (like acetone, indicative of potential type 1 diabetes) at measurements of parts per million or parts per billion, creating a highly sensitive, low-power tool to conduct real-time health analysis.

Verily Life Sciences — Google's science-focused sibling — has partnered with continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) giant Dexcom to work on the next generation of miniaturized CGM devices. Through their partnership, Dexcom and Verily hope to minimize both the size and costs associated with the current iteration of devices, increasing accessibility to people with type 1 diabetes around the world. People with type 2 diabetes can also take advantage of the services these mini CGMs will offer through the Verily Onduo program, a virtual care platform to help patients manage chronic disease.

The AT&T Foundry is home to a team of top biomedical engineers working to bring tomorrow's technology to customers today. Numerous wearables innovations have come out of the organization, including the OnePulse smartwatch — the first LTE-M certified medical wearable — and Aira's wearable glasses for the visually impaired. Most recently, AT&T teamed up with Cherish Health to develop an advanced biosensor to monitor patients' respiratory rate, oxygen levels, temperature and heart rate — invaluable data in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Today, the device helps hospitalized patients with COVID-19 return home faster, creating valuable hospital space for those who need it most.

Finally, the Samsung-Cedars-Sinai partnership is poised to revolutionize the pain management game by using a virtual reality headset to effectively manage and treat pain. Immersive VR experiences are used to divert patients' attention from their current pain, and research has shown that scenarios can be customized to target specific pain types. Accompanying biosensors monitor patient anxiety levels and respond immediately by presenting a new environment if an emotional response is triggered.

With a broad market and wide range of players, this is only a glimpse into the wearables market as a whole. Who else should make the who's who list?

What Will It Take to Make Wearables Mainstream?

It's clear that wearables are a good thing — mostly. As with any technology, healthtech wearables come with their own challenges, primarily associated with privacy, access and cost.

Healthtech purveyors need to consider data privacy when developing new wearable devices, particularly in the face of a public that is already wary about internet safety and security. On the whole, adults in the U.S. are concerned about the risks they face in data collection — 81%, according to the Pew Research Center, say that the risks of data collection outweigh the benefits, a necessary hurdle to overcome for wearables to be implemented in a meaningful way.

Personal health information is some of the most valuable data on the black market, and healthcare data breaches increase every year. Privacy is further hindered by gaps left in legislation between HIPAA and the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights, and patients are oftentimes skeptical that their data will, in fact, remain private.

There's at least one simple way to overcome these challenges: transparency. Communication with patients and organization-level staff about the objectives of using wearables, in conjunction with clear guidelines on what data is being collected and how it's stored, creates a sense of trust among users. For researchers using wearables to collect data for clinical research, adding steps to study protocols to account for data safety can go a long way toward gathering needed data.

Benefits and challenges aside, the future of healthtech wearables is bright. Consumers are invested in digital wellness, and it's safe to say that wearables are here to stay. In the coming years, experts predict that the wearable device market will continue to grow to include implantable medical technology along the lines of EPFL's bioprinted mini pancreas, just one of the many directions wearables might take. Experts also forecast that the market for wearables that monitor vital signs will hit $980 million by 2024, creating an exciting future of context-based automation in healthcare.

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