Published on July 31st, 2015 | by Mark Elliott

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It’s Not Just Consumers Who Are Excited by Google’s Ultimate Wearable Technology

We recently saw the announcement of Project Jacquard: sensing fabrics that will allow clothing to become interfaces and controllers of consumer devices. Embedded sensors within clothing will create the ultimate wearable devices that will allow the tracking of specific movements, not just activity. This will add to the array of recent consumer technologies that allow individuals to now monitor and manage their own health. The onset of smart sensing clothing could now revolutionise the self-management of physiotherapy and rehabilitation of movements.

The last year has seen an explosion in the availability of activity tracking and monitoring devices. This has been driven by the prevalence of low-cost sensors built into smart phones, watches and other consumer devices that are able to measure acceleration and hence, with some clever algorithms, quantify our activity. Of course, good technology goes nowhere without engaging the consumer. In this case, the ability to easily capture how many steps you’ve walked, how fast you’ve run or how far you’ve cycled has got consumers hooked. The ability to self-manage one’s own exercise goals and moreover, keep a long-term record of achievements that can be shared with virtually anyone has led to the rapid acceptance of this technology in our lives. The knock-on effect of this technology adoption is to improve the health of the nation, motivating a generally sedentary population to be active again.

Importantly, it is not just the general consumer who is interested in the rapid expansion of activity tracking technology. It is also a huge step forward for scientific research. Traditionally, the model of research would involve developing high cost, bespoke sensors to hand out to a small number of willing participants who would carry out their daily activities with these chunky devices attached to them. Returning to the lab a few days later the data could be downloaded and analysed. Jump forward to 2015, researchers no longer need to provide sensors – they’re built into everyone’s mobile phone. They no longer need to recruit small numbers of participants; they can reach out to thousands of volunteers simply by developing an app (now even easier with the release of Apple’s Research Kit). And this can all be done remotely, no need for any participants to even see the inside of a research laboratory. Researchers can use this self-collected activity in many ways. Some examples include the ability to track the effects of weight loss interventions or to identify deterioration in mental health from changes in activity. In general the ability to track large amounts of activity data unobtrusively allows researchers to identify a whole range of behaviour changes.

So what’s next? At the moment activity monitoring is limited to just that: a general measure of activity. The next stage is to measure movement. In other words, rather than measuring how many steps, it’s measuring how we make the steps. The achievement of low-cost movement sensing has the potential to revolutionise movement therapies in the healthcare sector. For example, patients would be able to self-manage and monitor progress of their physiotherapy programme following injury. Individuals requiring long-term movement rehabilitation therapies, such as stroke survivors would be provided with continuous guidance on relearning movement in the affected limbs. At the Institute of Digital Healthcare, researchers are developing these solutions based on off-the-shelf consumer technologies. Using Microsoft Kinect, a video-based sensor for the Xbox gaming consoles, a low cost, scaleable system has been developed that can be used by stroke-survivors (and their carers) to provide home-based guidance in relearning activities of daily living, while at the same time, tracking progress over time. This is another example of how consumer technology has been applied to healthcare applications. Traditionally, motion capture systems for research cost from tens of thousands through to hundreds of thousands of pounds. Although these systems are highly accurate, it creates a big problem when attempting to translate laboratory-based research into real world applications. For example, in the healthcare sector, neither private nor NHS physiotherapy services would have access to such technology, despite the clear advantages it would make to patient assessment. The Kinect, while much lower accuracy, has the ability to perform skeletal tracking and hence the ability to measure human movement at a tiny fraction of the cost of a motion capture system. Not only does this facilitate use in healthcare clinics, it further means it can be home or community-based, allowing patients to individually self-manage their therapy.

What’s needed now is a platform that will allow movement tracking to become ubiquitous in everyday life, as has happened for activity monitoring. In other words, a completely unobtrusive device is required that can become part of a person’s lifestyle. This week’s announcement of Google’s Project Jacquard could once again mean consumer technology will provide the necessary solutions to facilitate this. The development of sensing fibres means that the ultimate ‘wearable’ can be developed – smart clothing. While, Google are focussing applications around new ways of interacting with devices (e.g. smart phones and tablets), there is certainly a vision for this technology to be developed into smart clothing that will accurately measure movement. Importantly, this could be achieved with minimal intrusion to an individual’s daily activities. So, expect in the future not only to be comparing the number of steps with your friends, but also how well you’ve maintained your posture and how efficiently you’ve done those arm curls…

Finally, there are still many challenges ahead. In particular, consumer technology has an extremely fast development cycle, with devices, interfaces and levels of accuracy evolving all the time. In contrast, healthcare technology needs to be stable and moreover valid and reliable. Interfaces need to be standardized to ensure data is interpreted in the correct way. This clash means there are still issues with consumer technology fully transferring the management of health to the individual. However, it is clear the big players such as Google and Apple see the potential scale of their technology goes beyond just the consumer market and are likely to work towards developing standard platforms (as demonstrated by Apple’s Research Kit) to resolve these issues.

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Mark Elliott is Assistant Professor of Healthcare Technology and Behaviour Change at the Institute of Digital Healthcare at WMG. Mark's main research interests are centred on human movement coordination. He combines his skills in engineering and behavioural neuroscience to produce novel methods and models, describing how people use information across the senses to co-ordinate their movements.

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