Mobile health devices have become cool fashion and fitness accessories. They will be under many Christmas trees this holiday season. They do have their limitations, however, mainly being passive devices that monitor activity levels. A number of new technologies tease at the next step in our connected future beyond mobile health: cyborg health?
My own definition of Cyborg is a human who is augmented in physical and/or mental performance by a permanent or semi-permanent device that has extra sensory and/or mechanical functions and logic or intelligence capability. Here are a few examples of cyborg-like devices and people.
Sony has invented what they have termed the SmartWig, a sensor-festooned hairpiece. The SmartWig can monitor pulse, blood pressure, brain activity, body temperature, and more. It will connect wirelessly to the wearer’s smartphone. Since it’s a hairpiece, it’s easy to add audio feedback via earbuds or bone conduction although Sony seems to think in its patent application that a vibration motor would be used to signal and communicate with the wearer.
Sony is famous for not commercializing its inventions but the SmartWig may be just the right combination of innovation and practicality to compel Sony to bring it to market.
Researchers in England are working on alleviating a serious condition that affects millions who have minimal or no bladder control as a consequence of injury or disease. Poor bladder control inhibits lifestyles, causes infections, and inflicts misery on patients and their families. The “Cyborg Bladder” will provide smart functionality as well as external capability to control one’s bladder.
The neuroprosthetic device concept, being studied in rats at the moment, integrates nerves with an electronic implant and an external control. The promise is that the system would monitor the bladder, preventing accidental urination and enabling voiding on command, functions that are nonexistent in many patients.
The last example may be the most interesting. A man in England has been wearing a head-mounted device to help him with his severe color-blindness, a condition called achromatopsia. People with achromatopsia see completely in shades of gray with no ability to see any color. The British Cyborg device uses a camera to convert colors into sounds. The wearer “hears” the sound through bone conduction, thus “seeing” the colors of the objects being viewed.
The camera can detect wavelengths beyond human capability including infrared and ultraviolet, thereby giving the wearer super-normal “vision”. While other human cyborgs have been hassled by governments and businesses, the British Cyborg has a passport with a photo of him with his head mounted device in place, giving him some degree of legitimacy.
Takeaways: The line between science fiction and science fact is becoming increasingly blurred. Tech-savvy researchers and engineers have ever more sophisticated technology toolboxes with which to construct solutions to unsolved problems.
While some people may object to the notion of Cyborgs becoming prevalent in society – and the recent uproar about public use of Google Glass is a good example – people living with these chronic conditions may welcome the chance to become a bit of a ‘borg.
Companies seeking to enter these early markets should keep in mind that the Cyborg devices, much like prosthetics, are extremely personal products with which the user interacts constantly and over a long time. Good market and usability research and user input is essential before product development commences.
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