Look around, and you will notice that just about everyone is wearing a step-counting watch or another kind of “wearable” tech. Some capture and display your activity levels (and heart rate), while others conveniently show you who’s calling or texting. Many even let you even take a call on your wrist. (Dick Tracy, eat your heart out.)
But this is just scratching the surface of what’s possible.
New products that fuse health and wellness information together — from hearing aids with GPS to contact lenses that can measure glucose — are popping up in the marketplace. And they're not only helpful for the person who wears them, but they also can be valuable tools for a caregiver.
The International Data Corporation (IDC), which among other things tracks informational technology, predicts global shipments of wearables will nearly double from a forecasted 122.6 million units in 2018 to 190.4 million units in 2021, with growth in emerging markets of prescriptive and diagnostic wearables. And much of what's new or on the horizon are terrific tools for caregivers and those they care for.
The fourth-generation of the Apple Watch (Series 4; from $399) includes all the features found in its predecessor — such as support for Siri, Apple’s voice-activated personal assistant and a waterproof exercise companion, But for the first time, there’s an integrated ECG (electrocardiogram) to detect a dangerously high or low heart rate, or irregular heart rhythm.
The updated watch also detects falls, and its Emergency SOS feature means it can call 911, notify your emergency contacts, send your current location (via GPS) and display your medical ID info on its screen for emergency responders.
Other watches can also help you communicate and monitor loved ones. NurtureWatch ($155 prepaid or $23 per month plus $70 for the watch) lets a caregiver track a consented loved one’s whereabouts through GPS technology, plus it can make two-way calls, monitor heart rate and detect falls like the Apple Watch does. The watch also has a red SOS distress button in the event of an emergency. The interface and battery performance isn't as impressive as Apple Watch, but it's more affordable, the screen is larger, and it works with both iPhone and Android smartphones.
Similarly, the more affordable LocateWatch (above) ($16 per month for a minimum of 12 months) uses GPS for consensual tracking of loved ones, along with integrated cellular for making calls and built-in Wi-Fi to access the internet when in a wireless network. There is no heart rate monitor or fall detection, but there is an SOS button to call a predetermined contact (such as a caregiver or family member) or if the watch wearer leaves a specified area. For an extra $10 per month, the SOS button can also call a 24/7 emergency monitoring center.
Those who don’t want to wear a watch might opt for the LocateTracker ($13 per month for a minimum of 12 months), which is a small and trackable device to keep in a pocket or purse, attached to a keychain or worn as a pendant.
Smart rings and belts
While wrist devices might be the most popular examples of a wearable, there are a few other emerging categories, including smart glasses, wearable body cameras and high-tech clothing, to name a few. And you can now add “smart rings” to that list.
With Blinq (from $149), for example, this fashion-forward, female-centric jewelry lets you keep your smartphone tucked away in a purse or pocket yet still be (discretely) notified when a call, text or email comes in, as well as other notifications tied to your calendar or favorite apps. Use the Blinq app to assign colors to specific apps — like seeing the ring glow blue for when it's time to take scheduled medicine.
With the Panic S.O.S. mode, tap the ring repeatedly and the companion app can text someone your GPS location. And if you like, also post this info to your Facebook wall. This Bluetooth-enabled ring also has an integrated fitness tracker — calculating steps, distance and estimated calories burned — and sends the activity info to the app, perhaps on a caregiver’s phone or physician’s tablet.
According to a recent study by the CDC, 1 in 4 U.S. residents 65 years or older have a dangerous fall each year. So it’s no surprise that a new product called Hip’Safe (above) generated some buzz at this year's Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas — as it’s essentially the first wearable airbag that detects a fall as its happening and inflates (in an eighth of a second) to protect someone from breaking a hip. This “smart belt” is worn about the hip and is reusable; it will be available in medical shops and retailers by the end of the year. ($800; senior.helite.com)
Several innovations have been added to hearing aids over the past few years, ranging from Bluetooth connectivity (to clearly hear sound from televisions and smartphones) and longer-lasting and rechargeable batteries (that are easier to charge up, too) to support for apps that let you personalize settings on a nearby smartphone (such as adjusting volume, tweaking sound amplification or toying with noise reduction, based on your environment).
Some of today’s hearing aids also collect GPS location info provided by a nearby smartphone to detect when you’re in a specific environment, such as your home, and will automatically launch preset sound preferences.
We’ll soon see hearing aids with integrated smart assistants — like Apple's Siri, Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant — without requiring a nearby smartphone. You’ll first say a “wake” word, followed by a question or command, and as with smartphones and smart speakers with similar technology, the wearer will then hear a humanlike voice tell you answers to your queries.
Or what about an integrated activity tracker? Starkey Hearing Technologies’ new Livio AI (above) hearing aids have Fitbit-like sensors inside to track steps taken, distance traveled, time spent exercising and estimated calories burned. While Starkey won't confirm a date, these hearing aids “soon” will be able to detect if the wearer has fallen and can call 911 or notify a loved one.
Even more impressive are hearing aids that can instantly translate one language into another. Livio AI, for instance, can translate between 27 languages, courtesy of a companion smartphone app called Thrive. This allows you to talk to someone whose mother tongue is, say, Spanish, but you'll hear what they’re saying in English in near-real time. This could come in very handy between a caregiver and someone being cared for, for example, so nothing is lost in translation.
The next-generation hearing aid is also said to calculate and display “brain health” info on the Thrive app (iOS and Android), based on active listening, social engagement and other variables.
As a hearing aid manufacturer, Starkey says it does not set the price of hearing aids, but rather independent dispensers set their own prices (typically $2000 to $3000 per aid), which often includes service, maintenance and warranties.
While capable of augmenting the world around you with digital information superimposed on top, high-tech eyewear — such as Google Glass and Microsoft HoloLens — hasn’t quite caught on with the masses, but the industry is already looking ahead to smart contact lenses.
A team of South Korean researchers from the Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology (UNIST) and Sungkyunkwan University has published its work about soft lenses that can measure and monitor glucose levels in tears. You could imagine this technology being incredibly useful for those living with diabetes in order to help monitor their blood sugar.
And it could be a race to “see” who will be first to market a contact lens for people with diabetes, as Google announced it was developing this in 2014 — not to mention a similar project announced by a team at Indiana’s Purdue University this past summer.
The applications go well beyond diabetes, as smart lenses embedded with sensors may also be able to monitor other biomarkers such as blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
Read the full series on caregiving and technology