If the world of wearable tech required a centre of the universe, it might just be the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Sure, Silicon Valley is where the cash is thrown around; Shenzhen is where the gadgets are brought to life. Wearable tech hubs around the world like Canada, France and India are competing on research, startups, investment and big names. We've also toured university labs from virtual classrooms at San Jose State to AR experiments at UC Berkeley.
MIT researchers and students are often ten accurately counted steps ahead of everyone else, building projects and prototypes that we'll be wearing and using in 2020 or perhaps 2027 and beyond. This is where the big ideas come from. Here are some choice examples, a few very new, a few from the past 12 months or so, that we're particularly enamoured with.
A colour changing tattoo for diabetics
Don't let the name - Dermal Abyss - of this project put you off. This collaboration between three MIT researchers and two Harvard Medical School bods consists of biosensing inks, which change colour relative to the body's metabolism. The inks "colorimetrically index the concentration of sodium, glucose and H+ ions (pH) in the interstitial fluid of the skin" changing from purple to pink, blue to brown etc.
The tattoo could be useful for diabetics as well as people who need to track their dehydration or pH levels. It's at proof of concept stage with tests so far limited to a pig skin model. The purpose is to highlight how biosensing inks could be used in a health tracking setting and how we could make the skin interactive. There are no plans to launch as a product or go to clinical trials.
Haptic boots for astronauts
Some of the MIT projects take advantage of the fact that wearable tech can often be super specific to the user and environment. Take the Man Vehicle Lab's smart boots for astronauts, a project lead by Professor Leia Stirling. They are designed to give the wearer haptic feedback as an alert for obstacles they might not be able to see on a moonwalk. The boots know what's coming up thanks to built-in, range-finding sensors.
The team is interesting in exploring, among other things, how to build trust in human-machine interactions. The lab has already built a pair of prototype boots, which have been tested by the Mars Desert Research Society space imitating facility in Utah.
Your gait detecting smart home
We've been writing a lot about the rise of the wellness smart home, as our flats and houses become more intelligent. Tech like WiGait is an early sign of where this could be headed. It's a collaboration between MIT CSAIL (Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory) researchers and students, the Hong Kong University of Science and technology and Boston University.
Here's how it works: research is increasingly showing that how fast you walk could be a better predictor of various health issues - cardiac diseases, falls, cognitive decline - than metrics like blood pressure or heart rate. WiGait sits on the wall and analyses the wireless signals around and reflecting off your body to estimate walking speed to 95-99% accuracy and stride length to 85-99% accuracy. There's no indication yet of further plans to develop the device.
A wearable AI social coach
Another CSAIL project, this time looking to track our emotional health, not our physical health. A PhD student, Mohammad Ghassemi, and others have built an AI coach that can detect tone in voice and text conversations to a degree of 83% accuracy and potentially help people suffering with Aspergers with social interactions.
The tech isn't the hardware above, it's the AI powered software. It runs locally on the device, for privacy reasons, and measures things like tone, pitch, vocabulary and energy to classify it as happy/sad and positive/negative/neutral. Next up: collecting more data, possibly via an Apple Watch app, and making the algorithm more complex so it can pick up tense/exciting/boring moments too.
A gold leaf skin controller
OK this is the last tech tattoo at least for this list, we promise. The collaboration between MIT and Microsoft Research has already been through a few iterations, showing there's life in this particular idea. DuoSkin, once known as Tattio, is a fabrication process for making $1.50 temporary tattoos, which can control smartphones and gadgets via a conductive coil and NFC tags.
The team wants "on-skin electronics" to act more like body decorations while still being user friendly and further ideas for functions include embedded LEDs and tats that change colour depending on your temperature. Will digital skin jewellery be a real trend in the future? If it looks and behaves anything like this, it just might.