Invisible, ingestible, implantable: How fashion is making wearable tech disappear

The rise of the invisibles – the next-gen connected tech you won’t be able to see
Invisible, ingestible, implantable

Fashion and technology are not the most natural of bedfellows. One is entirely obsessed with form and the other a fool for function, and yet the gadget industry is falling over itself to forge a relationship that works with the desired end result a wearable offspring that, finally, everyone the world over is going to want to own.

On the surface, it makes sense, but there's something not right about this courting of couture beyond the unseemly advances made by Apple, Samsung and co. as they wrap their smartwatches around fashionistas and celebs with all the subtlety and grace of a randy dog. If they stopped to look up for a moment, they might release they've been humping the wrong leg.

Why bother turning a successful company structure on its head, adding poached professionals from another industry and throwing hours of R&D time and money at the problem all to try and satisfy fashion's fickles because wearables don't necessarily have to be seen at all? Instead, they can be invisibles.

"My opinion is that if you expose wearables to fashion then you have a problem," explains Dave Monahan, CEO of Fitlinxx, the company behind the stick-on plaster of an exercise tracker known as the AmpStrip. "We're behind the idea that people don't want to show off their wearable."

Over a third of Britons are of the same opinion, and with the UK just too cool to get on board with flashy gadgets at their wrists, Monahan's approach is starting to look like the right one.

AmpStrip isn't trying to take over that place where your classic timepiece normally rests. It's not interested in how it looks with your shirt or shoes. In fact, it pays little mind to aesthetics at all. You stick the thing to your skin, just under the left side of your chest, and it quietly gathers data on your heart rate, respiration, skin temperature, stress levels, posture, sleep habits, calorie burn, the number of steps you've taken and all sorts besides. Plus, of course, it's entirely waterproof which means you never have to take it off - unless you want to. It doesn't have to go with your outfit, you won't tire of what it does for your image and it never need be victim to the whims of trend.

"With things like watches and necklaces it's just so hard to design those so people want to use them over a long period of time," says Monahan. "In my opinion, invisible is the right way to go. Put it into the background and forget about it. Ensure that the data is available on social media, but don't show it off."

Invisible is the right way to go. Put it into the background and forget about it. Ensure that the data is available on social media, but don't show it off

But you don't have to wait for AmpStrip to ship this summer to appreciate invisibles. It turns out that they're already here. You just can't see them.

The most common to find are the wearable posture correction systems like the Lumo Lift, and Indiegogo and Kickstarter are littered with smart insoles and footfall analyser campaigns at various stages of production, to measure everything from your stride patterns to your muscle load.

There are some truly fascinating products and ideas using smart fabrics but even t-shirts that measure your heart rate are going to fall foul of fashion's seasons eventually.

Of course, smart buttons – made possible by the likes of Intel's Curie wearable chip – might need to be moved from one garment to another occasionally, and sticky strips will need replacing but the most invisible of all pieces of wearable technology are those that you'll never need to think about at all.

Ultimately, implants of one kind or another are what we're talking about but it feels as if wearables are here partly to bridge that broad stretch until we get there. For the time being, there's plenty of implantables out there in the medical field – pacemakers, cochlear implants etc. – but measuring and improving our bodies through electing to bury circuitry into our flesh seems currently only the pioneering and fairly shocking domain of the Grinder community.

But there is a very promising area that's a decent halfway house and that's ingestible tech – just as invisible, and far, far safer through their lack of permanence as much as anything else.

Given Image is an Israeli company that's designed a far less invasive, medically awkward and uncomfortable way to see what's going inside someone's gut, for example. Rather than the demi-humiliation of getting a camera thrust up your back passage, the PillCam, as you might guess from the name, is an ingestible that'll rattle off high-speed images as it travels through your alimentary canal. It comes in at about a tenth of the cost of a colonoscopy and it's been in regular use to the tune of over 1.5 million patients and counting.

CoreTemp - another cryptic name for you - is a similarly improved take on the traditional thermometer. It's more accurate and it's a live reading feeding back continuous information on what's going on. It'll monitor a patient for 24-36 hours before popping out the other end only superficially worse for wear. With elite sportspeople at danger of overheating during training and competition, there's a clear enough use case.

Now, while these might not be the kind of wearable you're looking to get into, the fact is that both the PillCam and CoreTemp are proof that invisible ingestibles can and do work. Of more stark global potential are the implants that really will be right inside you like the nanosensors currently under animal testing trials from a company named Scripps Health as described to Qmed by the chief academic officer and cardiologist Dr Eric Topol.

"What it involves is a tiny sensor at the nano level that can be injected in the blood, that basically puts the blood under continuous surveillance. That sensor also contains wireless capabilities that can be related to a smartphone. You're already in the vascular system, so what are you interested in seeing as blood goes by?"

For Topol, the first stop is endothelial cells, which are sloughed off artery walls in the build up to a heart attack. With these virtually invisible nanosensor picking up those signals, it could then tell you to head off to see your doctor long before the event itself ever takes place.

These 90-micron sensors would be large enough to lodge themselves into the capillary beds where they would sit reporting back information powered by movement of blood through them much like mini hydroelectric systems. Just as with many sports wearables today - only far more accurate and far less delayed - there'd be heart rate, blood pressure, VO2 max and all sorts of readings we can only dream of at the moment including a particularly handy one for diet which Scripps and Topol have already trialled.

"Someday you'll have your glucose every minute on your watch or on your phone, wherever," Topol told Qmed. "I've tried that, in terms of available sensors, for a week. It does affect what you eat. It does affect your lifestyle. I may not be representative, but I think a lot of people will have that information be an important factor in how they go about their lifestyle.

So, very quickly we get an impression of how wearables simply have to disappear in the years to come. Sensors are tough to design when chained down to fashion, and they're far more accurate and useful when they've made their way inside our bodies anyway, but don't expect them to vanish altogether as Topol has hinted. We will still need a way to connect to our invisibles. Sure, a mobile phone or some kind of futuristic smart home health hub would do but the point of a wearable like a watch is that it's somewhere that we can see and feel it quickly.

What's more, as the technology becomes smaller, cheaper and even eventually more environmentally friendly, then fashion accessories may as well come with added features so long as they're designed primarily to look good. Even if those functions are purely aesthetic - colour changing fabrics; animated clothing prints - then it's still a big presence for the idea of wearables.

While wearable technology may be something of holding pattern for much of the drive for the connected self, there are still a few ideas that we don't need to take any deeper than our skin.

It's going to be tough for tech and fashion to get on to begin with but they're just going to have to appreciate each other's cute little flaws. The Apple Watch's, at best, non-offensive design is a strong indicator that it's tech that needs to go to fashion and not the other way around. Fashion needs to cease its sneering - as the Swiss watch industry has begun to - and realise tech's there to be embraced, and tech needs to be content to be upstaged by an industry used to strutting its stuff.

The troubles between the two may be what the rise of invisibles is all about but leave them stuck in the same room and they'll eventually be soul mates enough to leave a fashion-tech legacy worthy of the style and usefulness to which both they, and the public at large, would be proud to wear.

So while the invisibles are coming, wearables are very much here to stay.

More longform features...

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Intel Inside vs Swiss Made: Which is the smartwatch mark of excellence?

Wearables and our dysfunctional obsession with screens and engagement

MotionX boss on creating a better future for wearable tech


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