​Biometrics to blow your mind: The sensors at the heart of our wearable future

Think wearables aren't advanced enough to be useful? Be patient
Future biometrics to blow your mind

You know your resting heart rate, the number of steps you take each day and how often you get up in the night to have a wee. That's what the wearables of today can tell you, but you've heard what they've had to say and, while it's a very decent start, so far, it's all very level 1.

If the wearables of tomorrow are going to set the world alight, then they're going to need a more advanced set of capabilities. With more sophisticated insights into what our bodies are up to, the better we'll know how to feed them, how to rest them and how to push them to their limits and beyond.

Staying healthier, stronger and fitter than ever before is just around the corner. These are the mind-blowing biometric technologies that will make it happen.

Glucose detection

Nobody has successfully cracked diet tracking and that's because all the systems out there at the moment rely on people recording their intake manually. It's time-consuming, it's hard to do properly and it all gets very complicated when someone else is cooking for you, but all that will change when there's a sensor either on or in you that measures what's in your blood stream.

Although picking up on proteins, fats and everything else is going to be incredibly important when it comes to balancing a perfect diet, glucose and blood sugar levels are the obvious place to begin. For athletes, diabetics and people just looking to watch what they eat, it's a key measure and the good news is that such sensors already exist.

Read this: The rise of invisibles and implantables in wearable tech

One is the unsuccessfully crowdfunded GlucosAlarm - a device that diabetics can put into their toilets which detects if there's too much glucose in their urine. A company named HealBe also debuted a controversial calorie counting wristband named GoBe at CES this year but the science behind its automatic glucose monitoring has been disputed and the wearable wasn't entirely accurate in BBC and Engadget tests.

Fortunately another proof of concept is a little more convincing. It's a nanosensor in tests by a company known as Scripps Health, also behind an ebola fighting wearable. It's injected into the bloodstream where it nestles in the capillary beds picking up live glucose readings and transmitting them wirelessly to a smartphone app. And if you think that sounds clever, it acts as a mini hydro-electric dam by using the force of the blood passing by for power.

Why it matters: Diet tracking could make fitness wearables not just useful but absolutely essential.

How long it will take: 5 years +

EEG (electrocephalogram)

Your EEG, or electroencephalogram, is a measure of your brain activity. In the lab, it's that shower cap thing full of electrodes which pick up the changes in voltage going on inside your noggin and therefore figure out which parts of your cortex are more active than others at any given moment. An EEG can be set to pick up all sorts of different classic frequencies such as those predominant during, say, sleep or during relaxation or times of stress.

While no wearable company expects you to walk around with a head covered in sensors measuring your every thought, a few of them out there are getting specific and quite practical about it too. Muse takes EEG readings at your temples to help guide you through daily exercises designed to increase your feeling of calm, and Kokoon is a set of EEG headphones which play audio - as dictated by what measurements it makes - designed to help you get to sleep and maintain your slumber too.

Read this: Muse brain sensing headband review

They're both a decent start at what might be possible but it's definitely low-hanging fruit as far as sensing our brain activity goes. A more accurate understanding of EEG patterns would gauge our likes and dislikes which could make for a better suggestion system for entertainment; or it could make for a more customised interactive gaming experience with environments that adapt to suit our engagement. At a more simple level, it could even be used to control our smart home needs such as boiling kettles and tuning the central heating systems as we need them.

We're a fair way before things get that clever with EEG but the biggest barrier might be finding a way of measuring it that people will actually be willing to wear.

Why it matters: Automatic preferencing could make scrolling through Netflix a thing of the past.

How long it will take: 15 years +

ECG (electrocaridogram)

This time those three letters stand for electrocardiogram and it's all about measuring your heart instead of your brain. Much like an EEG, though, it's a recording of the electronic activity going on inside your blood pump and the good news is that you can pick up the signals with electrodes placed on your skin.

Now, on the one hand, it's a very useful thing for checking in on the health of one's ticker and that's good when you're dealing with elite sportspeople or those with cardiac conditions. What's interesting about ECGs for the average consumer, however, is that everybody's heart beat profiles are utterly unique and that rather turns it into the perfect biometric recognition system; one that's very hard to fake.

Read this: Why paying with your wrist is the future of shopping

Bionym is the company that's spearheading this idea at the moment with its Nymi wristband. The product itself is not really going to catch on, largely because no one will want to wear it. But, the ECG sensor that sits inside could easily be incorporated into your favourite watchstrap or whatever it is that you are going to sport on a daily basis.

One quick touch confirms your ID and then it'll use Bluetooth to unlock any device that you own until you decide to take it off again. Goodbye passwords, combination locks and even your house and car keys.

Why it matters: Biometric ID for wearables could do away with cash, cards, keys and tickets.

How long it will take: 5 years (10 years inc. infrastructure)

EMG (electromyography)

Again, this is a sensor system concerned with measuring the electrical activity of your body but this time it's all about your skeletal muscles, ie. the ones you need for locomotion. Your motor neurons electrically stimulate muscle clusters - the more intense the signal, the more of these clusters are involved in the activity and, so, the harder you're getting your body to work.

While endurance sport is more cardiovascular-based, anyone looking to build up their bodies in certain ways or get the most our of their time at the gym really needs to know that they're exercising the correct muscle groups as they do so. EMG heat maps and readings can offer that.

Companies like Athos and Myontech have already created clothing with EMG sensors embedded to keep you training in the zone that's right for you. For Athos, it's all about the gym to give you live feedback on your muscle effort and your building/toning targets.

Read this: The best smart clothing

For Myontech's Mbody system, it's more tailored towards looking out for muscle load and balance to both avoid injury and ensure a safe passage during recovery. Neither system is available to buy just yet but both certainly show plenty of promise.

Of course, EMG sensors don't just have to be used to tell you about what your muscles are doing. Instead, muscle activity can be used as a switch or control for other objects. MyoWare is one company that's designed hardware to pick up on the signals, amplify them and then use the output for everything from controlling video games to robotic movements and the smoother action of prosthetics.

Why it matters: MyoWare is interesting but EMG's future is really all about fitness.

How long it will take: 5 years+

Odour sensing

Odour is something we're not particularly aware of, certainly at a conscious level, as a species but that doesn't mean it's not important or that we have to settle for the basic olfactory system that we've got.

A body-worn sensor for airborne particles would be a rather useful thing. The tricky part is that there's a lot of niffs out there, so you'd need some kind of universal machine which you could set for different smells as needed.

Read this: eScent creates personalised scent bubbles based on your mood

In terms of one's own biology, the ability to detect when we're a bit pongy might be a handy one. In fact, Jenny Tillotson at Central Saint Martins has been developing the idea for a device she calls eScent that could mask any odours automatically by creating a personal spray bubble around us. It could give us a perfume to counteract our own or even do the same for any environmental smells or atmospheres that we might wish to avoid inhaling.

Beyond that, of course, a smell detector could open us up to a world of whiffs to which we're simply not party at the moment. It could find our keys for us or we could know where to get the best food on the street without having to go in and take pot luck with the menu first. Ultimately, it gives us the potential for expanding our horizons, or our umwelt, as creatures. Smell is probably our least understood sense. Take it to this level and we'd be superhuman.

Why it matters: Improved perception could change how we experience the world. Smell is an as yet untapped resource.

How long it will take: 20 years+

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