The promise of wearables was all the rage just five years ago. Big tech names like Apple and Google were promising revolutionary wearable devices capable of improving our health while requiring very little input from us. Entering the fourth quarter of 2019, wearables seems so passé. The future now rests in skin-mounted sensors.
Though skin-mounted sensors are still not ready for prime time, they are very close. Engineers just have to work out a few little kinks and the sensors will be ready to go. Not only will they be easier to use than your typical wearable, but they will also be capable of collecting a lot more data.
Techcrunch’s Devon Coldewey recently wrote about two competing sensor technologies from Stanford and Berkeley universities. His research shows just how close we are to these sensors being everyday items.
The Two Technologies
Wearables and skin-mounted sensors are similar technologies in principle. Both are designed to measure some sort of biological stimulus and then report the information they gather. Where they differ is what makes skin-mounted sensors so much better.
There are two primary differences worth talking about, beginning with how each of them is deployed. A wearable is deployed by building it into some sort of clothing article or accessory. A good example is a wearable worn on the wrist. The device is fitted with powerful medical sensors that can measure heart rate, temperature, and so forth.
A skin-mounted sensor is not an external device worn as an article of clothing. Rather, it is a thin strip that sticks to the skin just like an adhesive bandage. This sort of deployment makes the sensor one with the body rather than one that makes minimal contact with the body.
How Sensors Collect Information
The other difference, and arguably the bigger of the two, is how information is collected. Coldewey says that a wearable device relies on things like accelerometers and optical measurements to collect the desired data. A skin-mounted sensor relies on its own movement.
Super thin sensors are manufactured using an electrically conducive ink. As the sensor moves and stretches with the body, the ink picks up even the slightest of changes. The data can be used to analyze everything from movement to temperature. An example cited by Coldewey is a sensor placed on a person’s knee to measure flexibility. It can be used to track a patient’s recovery progress following an injury.
Similar skin-mounted sensors can track heartbeat, respiration, and even mood changes. It is all because the sensor comes in direct contact with the skin to create a seamless joint between the two.
The Future of New Sensors
Most of what we know about wearables ties them to health and well-being in some way. That is likely the future of skin-mounted sensors as well. According to California-based Rock West Solutions, the medical implications of skin-mounted sensors are almost limitless. But Rock West says that they could be used for non-medical purposes as well.
One of the things engineers still have to work out is an effective way to transmit data without having to use wired connections. But once they figure that out, viable applications will be there. For example, the military could use skin-mounted sensors to track soldier performance on the battlefield. It could help individual units find MIA soldiers by tracking where they are and making it clear they are still alive.
Wearables looked like promising technology a few years back. Unfortunately for wearable makers, they are about to be displaced by skin-mounted sensors. It is only a matter of time.