Trend: Wearable health devices on the rise

By Brian Dolan

Brian Dolan, Editor, MobiHealthNewsRecent months have brought a flurry of industry metrics, market predictions, investment rounds, research announcements and more that have fueled the rising trend of wearable health devices. This past February MobiHealthNews reported on market predictions made by ABI Research: In five years the number of wearable wireless health and fitness devices will hit 169.5 million. That’s up from almost 21 million such devices last year. The firm expects about 90 million wearable fitness devices to be in the market five years from now, which leaves about 80 million health-focused ones.

This week researchers at the University of Arkansas grabbed headlines after announcing that they had developed a remote monitoring system -- dubbed an "e-bra" -- that could integrate with women's sports bras or a vest for men. The system consists of a "series of nanostructured, textile sensors" integrated into the garments via a lightweight, wireless module that snaps onto the clothing. The device communicates to a nearby smartphone via short range wireless, which can then relay the data to care providers. The cuff-less sensors can monitor blood pressure, body temperature, respiratory rate, oxygen consumption, neural activity, ECG, and more, according to the research team.

“Our e-bra enables continuous, real-time monitoring to identify any pathophysiological changes,” Vijay Varadan, Distinguished Professor of electrical engineering said in a statement. “It is a platform on which various sensors for cardiac-health monitoring are integrated into the fabric. The garment collects and transmits vital health signals to any desired location in the world.”

At the end of last month Misfit Wearables, the wearable devices startup founded by AgaMatrix co-founders Sonny Vu and Sridhar Iyengar as well as former Apple CEO John Sculley, raised $7.6 million led by Brian Singerman of the Founders Fund and Khosla Ventures. While Misfit has been very quiet about its specific plans, it seems likely the company will launch a product that includes sensors embedded in some type of clothing instead of a wrist-worn device or peel-and-stick sensor.

While this one is more of an art project, it did get the attention of The Wall Street Journal this week: "'IM Blanky,' a 'smart' blanket, brings together high technology and homely arts and crafts. For an art exhibition, designers affiliated with the University of Toronto's architecture school arrayed 104 sensors in floral patterns on a green taffeta blanket, linking them with soft conductive material. The sensors relay moment-by-moment data about their orientation; the information goes to a processor and then wirelessly to a computer, which creates a 3-D rendering of the fabric's surface. One potential application is monitoring fitful sleepers, and the designers are brainstorming with medical engineers about ways to deploy 'the blanket with an IP address' in hospitals." Not quite a wearable, but close.

USA Today also ran a piece on wearable devices. While it mostly focused on location-aware devices that help people track family members who may wander, the roundup also included a mention of Zephry Technology's BioHarness, which is mostly used by military types or professional athletes, as well as Exmobaby, the heart rate, temperature and emotional state monitoring baby clothing that AT&T announced it was wirelessly-enabling recently.

In mid-April research firm Forrester called attention to the wearable device trend -- mostly as a piggyback on the recently unveiled and widely hyped Google's Project Glass. Forrester predicted that for the wearable device market to move into the mainstream, it must "get serious investment from the 'big five' platforms — Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook — and their developer communities." This is the "next platform war", according to the firm. Forrester specifically points to the rising number of wearable fitness devices, including Nike+FuelBand, as an indication of the trend.