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Big Idea of 2014: Wearable Health Sensors

ByTim De ChantNOVA NextNOVA Next

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On September 9, 2014, Apple, with its considerable clout, helped thrust into the mainstream the idea of a wearable computer, one that wasn’t an awkwardly designed set of pseudo-glasses, but an unobtrusive watch bearing host of simple sensors—including a heart rate monitor. The future of computing, they seemed to be saying, won’t just include casually reading text messages on your wrist, but also new ways of monitoring your health.

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A prototype flexible sensor measures temperature, heart rate, and other vital signs.

The heart rate sensor on the Apple Watch is relatively basic, and while it may end up becoming one of the most widespread exemplar, other companies are developing wearable health sensors that promise to be more advanced and less unobtrusive. Back in June, I explored this nascent but burgeoning field :

The devices available now, and to be announced in the coming months, are just the tip of the iceberg. They’re simple and unsophisticated, like early cell phones. In the coming years, wearable health sensors will grow more capable, and they’ll likely become integrated into our daily lives. Yet the challenges they face are far more complex than those required by other revolutionary devices like smartphones, and the regulatory hurdles are far higher. That means the golden age of wearable health sensors isn’t upon us, but it will be soon.

The technology behind many of these devices has been in development for decades, and only now is it ready for mass production. As doctors and engineers comb through the scores of available metrics—from heart rate and blood oxygen levels to subtle changes in the way we move—they’re striving to make meaningful diagnoses.

While there are many challenges for the industry to overcome, including what to make of all this new data and how to protect patient privacy, the developments of the last year have rapidly changed wearable health sensors from research projects into attainable realities.

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