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Smart tattoos, VR, and sensors in clothing will transform healthcare in the future

The next wave of wearables is already visible

By Dr. René Arnold, VP Public Affairs Strategy, Huawei Technologies

People have worn or carried small devices to augment their capabilities for at least 800 years. Corrective eyeglasses were introduced in the 13th century. Pocket watches and the abacus ring followed in the 16th and 17th centuries, respectively. The “smart shoe,” used by mathematicians Ed Thorp and Claude Shannon in 1961, predicted where the ball would fall on a roulette wheel. The inventors made a fortune in Las Vegas.

Today’s smartphones are infinitely more capable than the smart shoe. A wide variety of connected devices can track our physical activity, monitor body metrics, and provide easy-to-understand information on how to improve our fitness.

We can already see the next wave of wearables. Their sensors will be smaller, enabling new form factors such as smart skin patches, or seamless integration into clothes. Most importantly, we can expect these new devices to overcome a big problem – limited battery life – by harvesting power directly from the wearer’s body movement.

Huawei’s recent research project with Professor Anna Schneider (see related interview) shows that, while early versions of tomorrow’s devices are already available, most consumers don’t know about them yet. Survey results across six countries were surprisingly similar: smart underwear, tattoos, and rings remain on the far horizon, with most respondents stating they had not even heard of them.

Virtual reality and smart tattoos

All of these emerging wearables feature closer and continuous skin contact. This enables superior data collection and more accurate measurement of metrics we can already track, such as heartrate, temperature, and stress levels. For people with prosthetics, the flat and flexible form factor affords precise fitting and continuous tuning according to their potentially changing needs. Finally, smart tattoos and skin patches can be used to control other devices which may not offer a built-in interface.

But the survey data indicates that increasingly, people want to use virtual reality (VR) headsets and on-body monitors for health and fitness training. The early adopters of these technologies will likely live in China, where more than one-third of respondents said they intended to use VR for fitness in the near future (see chart).

Our survey data also indicate that most of the immediate growth in the wearables category will come from the smartwatch. In the US and major European markets, we can expect the user base to grow by around 10%. In China, where smartwatches are already more popular, 18% of respondents who had not worn smartwatches previously said they wanted to try them in the near future.  

Next to the smartphone, smartwatches are the most commonly used wearable and the clear leader in future scenarios across different countries. Leveraging the large sample of users collected in our study, we can take a closer look at smartwatch users.

Watch yourself

We find that the smartwatch has bridged some digital divides. For example, the gender gap where wearables are concerned is virtually gone. In China, a slight majority (58%) of smartwatch users is male. But in France, the UK, and the US, the tally stands between 47% and 48% male users.

Age poses less of a barrier to adoption as well. The median age of users hovers around 45 years, implying that half of smartwatch users are older than 45.

Most notably, there seems to be nothing left of the geekiness that characterized the early days of the “quantified self” movement. In all of the countries we surveyed, a sizable share of smartwatch users –

between one-third and one-half – did not actively track any physical activity or body metrics. Instead, those users seem to have bought smartwatches largely for their fashion value and miscellaneous other functions. 

Still, the smartwatch has a long way to go before reaching the ubiquity of the smartphone. Huawei’s survey shows that smartphone apps are by far the most popular means of tracking health and fitness today. Pre-installed apps, as well as those available for the major smartphone operating systems by third-party vendors, are starting to offer significantly more advanced functionality than in the past.   

Consistent with the VR trend noted above, many smartphone apps have started to offer online physical training. Users enjoys apps that let them train when and where they want, while access to top international trainers often comes at lower price than the typical gym subscription.

But online training can feel isolating. It will be interesting to learn how this perception develops as VR technology comes into more widespread use.

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