The Future of Wearables Makes Cool Gadgets Meaningful

Devices and data can improve our health and enhance the environment.
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Wristband safety phones dial up to five phone numbers at the touch a button. (Steve Marcus/REUTERS)

On an average day in 1998, statistician David Fairley was walking up a busy San Francisco street to pick up his son from preschool. Traffic was heavy, and halfway to the school, he started to feel weak and dazed.

“Actually, a homeless guy saw me and helped me to the school,” Fairley said. 
“[People at the school] had me lie down for a bit.”

Fairley felt better after a rest, but the school administrators insisted he go to the hospital. On the way there, he had a heart attack.

Years earlier, as a newcomer to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, Fairley had been asked to vet new research that correlated exposure to particulate matter and increased mortality rates — particularly deaths related to cardiovascular and respiratory incidents. At the time, all of the available science had been conducted by one researcher in London. “I thought, the Bay Area isn’t like London at all; it’s much colder and wetter there, and people there might already have respiratory issues,” Fairley said. “And honestly I set out thinking, I’m gonna prove this guy is wrong.” Fairley repeated the study in California’s Santa Clara County and, to his amazement, his results were almost exactly the same as the London researcher’s. Since that time, several other studies have replicated Fairley’s results, including a long-term American Cancer Society study. There is now conclusive evidence that correlates particulate matter levels and daily mortality rates. Shortly after his heart attack, Fairley also uncovered studies that linked exposure to ultrafine particulate matter—the sort you get next to a busy street with a lot of traffic—and a coronary episode within one to two hours.

“Even though there were, of course, other factors, I believe walking up that street might well have contributed [to my heart attack],” he said. “Ultrafine particles are so small that they’re fairly unstable. They don’t stick around. They agglomerate into bigger particles or else diffuse out. If you look at the gradient from roads, concentrations of ultrafine particles are really a lot higher on a busy street. So it really could make a difference to move one or two streets over.”

Nonetheless, Fairley continued to walk the same busy route between his home, work, and his kid’s school for years. “It finally dawned on me after several years that I really should shift my route to less busy streets, so I did,” he said.

Did you catch that? 

Even as an expert in particulate matter who had experienced its impact first-hand, it took Fairley years to adjust his routine according to the information he had. That is a fundamental issue when it comes to myriad decisions affecting both health and the environment in cities around the world. It’s not necessarily enough to have all the information we need to make good choices; rather, we need to have the right information in the precise moment in which we are making a decision.

Wearables—wristbands, watches, clothing, or in some cases, pollution masks with built-in wireless sensors—may be part of the solution. Capable of unobtrusively collecting all sorts of data on the street, comparing them with historical data from government, academic, and other sources, and pushing information to the user at relevant times, this new generation of gadgets promises to provide more current, actionable information than laptops or even smart phones.

Portable Pollution Detectors

Existing wearables, ranging from the FitBit (a sleeker version of a pedometer) to the Pebble watch to Google glass headsets to the forthcoming iWatch, largely fall into two camps: Those that provide information (Google glass, “smart” watches), and those that collect information (FitBit, the now-discontinued Nike Fuel Band). The next generation of wearables aims to combine those two functions, collecting personal data and then analyzing it against various other data sets to provide customized information and context-based suggestions.

Eric Parker/flickr

So in the pollution case, for example, a wristband could vibrate or flash red and let the wearer know that he’s walking through an area with a high concentration of ultrafine particulates and suggest a different route. That could provide not only individual health benefits but also a growing awareness among the public of the link between pollution and health. Increasingly, wearable companies are also working to provide data to academic researchers and governments. For example, the same wearable device could feasibly indicate both a person’s pollution exposure and his various potentially related health effects, which could go a long way toward helping air pollution management districts set limits and create meaningful policies. Privacy concerns have largely impeded the flow of data to government agencies, and for good reason, but government officials and developers are working toward a privacy-protected system in which anonymous data could be shared with the government to mutual benefit. More on that later.

Jonathan Lansey is a data engineer at wearable tech company Quanttus, which is working on a souped-up wristwatch that measures and analyzes its wearer’s vital signs—heart rate, blood pressure, temperature—in response to everything from exercise and sleep to air pollution and weather. In keeping with many of the newer entrants to the wearables space, the company is also actively pursuing relationships with academic institutions, to which it plans to supply aggregate data. So far, efforts to supply data to government agencies haven’t amounted to much due to a combination of bureaucratic inefficiencies, privacy concerns, and mismatched data systems. Instead, Lansey said Quanttus’ plan is to get its user data to academics who can use it to help inform the peer-reviewed studies government agencies are referencing when crafting policy.

“I think that’s going to be a large branch of our contribution; we’re building a business here, but there’s an altruistic component, too,” said Steve Jungmann, vice president of product management for Quanttus. In addition to providing data, the company is also allocating devices for use in various studies. “We’re across the street from MIT, so we get to talk to people there with some fantastic ideas around biometric monitoring as attached to x, whether it be air quality, emotions, the ability to perform under pressure, any number of things,” he said.

Talking Trees

Most “smart city” technology aims to eliminate humans from the equation, to design around human error. Wearable designers have almost the opposite aim: to arm humans with the right information at the right time, integrating them into the network of a smart city and making them part of the solution. Getting citizens to better understand the dangers of air pollution and to adjust their lives accordingly is just one example. 

Frog Design Group, Frog, a global product strategy and design firm headquartered in San Francisco, was an early entrant to the wearables space, designing prototypes for Motorola back in 2002. In 2012, the design firm set a team of designers across its various international offices the task of coming up with eight different concepts for the wearables of the future, compiled in the brief “Wearable Technology and the Connected City.” About half were technologies that would deliver an environmental benefit. One—a face mask equipped with sensors that measure air pollution, designed by the Shanghai office—may be on the market soon; the rest are still just concepts, but they have helped to spark conversations with both product companies and government agencies about what’s possible when you combine civic aims with wearable technology. 

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Amy Westervelt is a writer based in Truckee, California. She is the co-founder of Climate Confidential.

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