The Future of Wearables at SXSW 2014

SXSW_Logo_2013_BlackBG_CSAs you might have imagined, the conversation around wearables was booming at SXSW this year.  But they weren’t talking about FitBit or Fuelband as you might expect.  They were talking about what comes next, after we’ve quantified our surface vitals.

“I got bored with how many steps I walked every day and quickly got used to the idea that I was never doing enough,” said Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, in a conversation-style session held with Joi Ito, Director of the MIT Media Lab.  “The amount we are starting to wear to track our vital signs is crazy, but we are moving beyond vitals very quickly,” Brown went on.

The Affective Computing group at MIT is now taking wearables deeper into ourselves than ever before with conductive skin technologies that can detect stress and, paired with complex algorithms, intuit emotions. In aggregate, Joi explained, this will grant us the ability to curate our lives in ways we couldn’t before.  Historically, our environment and circumstances were akin to a series of accidents and coincidences. The future will be much more intentional.

In the healthcare delivery space, these new technologies will help us treat and understand emotional conditions like anxiety, stress, autism, and others. “Devices like Neumitra will transform the way we think about mental health,” said Scott Stropkay, co-founder of Essential. “Mental health is about brain health, which is analogous to physical health, which can be measured and improved.”

Technologies like Neuma, a bio-sensing watch, help measure stress in real time so we can start to manage it.  Linked to a dashboard and combined with calendars or locations, we can begin to figure out what stresses us out—and what calms us. On a larger scale, we can aggregate that data to help make our communities, societies, and world an altogether less-stressful place.

But there is a moral question to all this measurement and quantification. Sometimes there are evolutionary and societal reasons for the need to deceive ourselves. After a less-than-savory meal at a friend’s house, we are conditioned to say, “dinner was great,” so as not to offend. And we are conditioned to believe it. “What’s interesting,” says Ito, “is that the subconscious always knows, we just don’t always rationalize. In a controlled, unemotional study, we can pick out the liar.”

Emotion- and stress-tracking wearables bring the sub-conscious truth about ourselves to the surface.  And how will these affect things like healthcare?  We are all familiar with the placebo affect, which works both ways. This, in fact, is the basis for the FDA ordering 23andMe, an online genetic testing service that provides ancestry-related genetic reports, to cease providing health-related reports until the FDA works through the implications and figures out how to regulate this new kind of service. “Nine out of 10 cases of type 2 diabetes can be prevented. But we spend more money treating than we do preventing,” said Ann Wojcicki, founder of 23andMe. “Everyone makes money when I am sick, but who makes money when I am healthy?”

“Twenty-seven percent of us are wearing some sort of sensor,” explained Dr. Leslie Saxon while speaking on Body Computing. “A new person—from birth until the time they are two—will have more medical record data stored in the cloud than any person who came before them.”

All of this is leading to a new kind of personalized healthcare. The kind of healthcare in which delivery mechanisms happen in real-time and enable informed decision-making.  At an aggregate level, data can aid, inform, and expedite research.

Today’s quantified wearables are a great start, but the future of wearables is contextual, environmental shaping, and behavior changing.

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2 Comments

  1. Prof. Karl Bardosh
    Posted March 23, 2014 at 7:43 am | Permalink

    Dear Matt Balogh,
    Excellent article, I’d like to communicate with you about Google Glass as a possible filmmaking device..
    I teach Cell Phone Cinema at New York University.
    Thank you.
    Prof. Karl Bardosh

  2. Matt
    Posted March 25, 2014 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the comment Prof. Bardosh. I always love to talk glass, so feel free to drop me an email: Matt.balogh at Ogilvy dot com.