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A lot of work still needed for medical-grade wearables

23 Jul 2015  | Rick Merritt

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According to the co-founder of a wearables startup about to launch its first product, existing wearables fall short of the goal of delivering medical-grade information in ways useful to consumers.

"Wearables today still provide limited information and limited accuracy," said Julien Penders, COO of Bloom Technologies. For example, activity trackers showed "a factor of eight difference between two devices" in one recent review, he said.

As a researcher at the Imec institute outside Brussels, Penders helped develop technology behind the Samsung Simband which includes 13 sensors. A variety of sensors are needed to deliver medical-grade information because every sensor has trade-offs, Penders said.

For example, optical photoplethysmogram sensors used on some smart watches are highly accurate but "batteries won't last more than a day and they only work well under rest or moderate motion and have poor performance when moving because blood flushes creating artifacts," he said.

By contrast, "bio-impedance sensors use as much as two orders of magnitude less power but generate more artifacts and thus less reliability," he said. And popular activity trackers do not generally deliver accurate information about calories burned.

"As a consequence wearables fail to engage people," said Penders. "They stop using devices in a couple months because they give you information you already know, I know how active I am," he said.

Wearables can solve real consumer problems

Wearables can solve real consumer problems and advance medical research, Pedners said.

The way forward, according to penders, is "to address real problems and put accurate information, medical-grade information in consumers' hands," he said.

That implies simplifying a continuous flow of medical data down to a few relevant recommended actions. "We need to summarise big data into small data," Penders said. But he was quick to advise attendees to "embrace regulation to get a medical-grade stamp" for products.

Work on printed and stretchable circuits, some as thin as 25µm, are helping create wearables consumers can wear more comfortably in various places. "We have to move beyond today's race to the wrist," he added, predicting today's smart watches will be followed by devices such as smart contact lenses and eventually implants.

Penders is taking his own prescription. At Bloom Technologies he is developing a smart patch to track the health of a pregnant women and her fetus. He just completed a beta test and hopes to launch the product later this year.

Attendees questioned Penders about the details Bloom patch and the company's plan for marketing it. But he declined to provide details until the formal launch.

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