How Wearables Are Moving Beyond Your Wrist

Your carpet could soon monitor your health

Key Takeaways

  • MIT scientists have discovered a way to use carpets to monitor humans without using privacy-invading cameras.
  • It’s part of a growing wave of devices that can monitor people beyond wearables like the Apple Watch. 
  • Feet are one area that’s getting a lot of attention for a place to put wearable technology.
Closeup of someone's arms covered in neon spatter paint wearing a smartwatch.

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There’s a lot more to wearables than wristbands these days.

A growing number of devices, including headphones and rings, are monitoring our movement and health. Now, researchers at MIT have come up with a way to use carpets to monitor humans without using privacy-invading cameras. These surveillance gadgets stretch the meaning of "wearable," and could include technology outside the body.

"Today, consumers have the technology to track nearly every part of their lives—sleep, exercise, diet—enabling them to have constant information about their physical states at their fingertips (or, in this case, wrists)," Ramses Alcaide, the CEO of Neurable, a company that develops smart headphones, said in an email interview.

This Carpet Could Watch You

The MIT researchers built a carpet of commercial, pressure-sensitive film and conductive thread, with over 9,000 sensors, according to a recent paper they published. Each of the sensors converts a person's pressure into an electrical signal through the physical contact between people’s feet, limbs, torso, and the carpet. 

The system was trained using synchronized tactile and visual data, such as a video and corresponding heatmap of someone doing a pushup. The model takes the pose extracted from the optical data as the ground truth, uses the tactile data as input, and finally outputs the 3D human pose.

"You can imagine leveraging this model to enable a seamless health monitoring system for high-risk individuals, for fall detection, rehab monitoring, mobility, and more," Yiyue Luo, a lead author on a paper about the carpet, said in a news release.

Wearables Everywhere?

Manufacturers are starting to look at many parts of the body as a place to put wearable technology. Feet are one area that’s getting a lot of attention.

"As a runner, in my dream world, there would be a smart sock that uses sensors to understand my foot structure and running gait, and then uses that info to build a custom insole that would ideally reduce injuries," Carmen Fontana, an expert on emerging technology, said in an email interview. "In diabetics, this information can be used as a signal of foot ulcers, infection, and other potentially serious conditions."

Monitoring hydration is an area that is seeing increasing interest in the wearables market.

Smart swimsuits can monitor your UV exposure and, based on your skin type, remind you to reapply sunscreen while you sunbathe poolside, Fontana said.

Advances in technology could make wearables part of everyday healthcare, experts say. 

On-body sensors like BioIntelliSense’s BioSticker and BioButton offer continuous vital sign monitoring, Ed Lear, a senior vice president at VeeMed, a virtual health care company, said in an email interview. Some patches can be stuck on the body and constantly read glucose levels, which users can view through an app on their phone via Bluetooth. 

Closeup of a microchip on a finger.

KTDesign / Science Photo Library / Getty Images

"With the advent of nanotechnology, there are sensors so minuscule they can be weaved into thread," Lear said, "which can then be used in clothes, sitting close to your skin. The next wave of wearables will likely be in this form, such as sensors in the insoles of shoes, undergarments, and socks." 

Researchers are looking into putting wearable tech on the upper arm, torso, lower back, beltline of pants, the ankle, and under the foot to capture data. 

"The biometrics potential is significant, but it’s a challenge to capture these insights on an ongoing basis," Laurie Olivier, CEO of LifeQ, a company that deals with biometrics and wearables, said in an email interview. 

There also are ingestible monitor devices, including broadband-powered pills or devices that monitor internal events and medication usages. 

"A good example is ingesting a tiny camera that can detect disorders of the gastrointestinal tract," Olivier said. "Recently, a team at MIT created an ingestible with parts that digested at different rates, allowing medicine to be released in a controlled fashion."

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