We already live in an era where it is commonplace for smartwatches and running watches to sense our daily activities and visualize our health data and physical activity level. In addition to the watch-type devices that are widely used today, it is expected that a range of devices that can be attached to the body in various ways (i.e., wearable devices) will come to be used to augment our lives. How will these wearable devices change our lives in the future?
[Key Points of this Article]
● Sensing technology for smart glasses driven by innovation
● Miniaturizing and lowering the price of sensors will lead to a breakthrough in next-generation devices
● How a smart fork can detect the food it picks up
● The era of wearing small robots
● Can wearable devices provide us with a better life?
The Next Standard: Smart Glasses that Use Eye Movement
With Google's launch of Glass Enterprise Edition 2, an eyeglass-shaped wearable device for corporate customers, smart glasses can be considered the leading standard for the next generation of wearable devices.
Associate Professor Kazuya Murao's lab at Ritsumeikan University's College of Information Science and Engineering is conducting research on wearable devices that uses sensors to understand the body's movements and its current state, and in turn, use this information to improve the quality of life (QOL) for people.
Assistant Professor Kyosuke Futami, who works with Associate Professor Murao, showed us a prototype of a wearable system that helps care for the eyes.
To create this device, the research team focused on how muscle movements around the eyes cause the skin to rise up when blinking. The frame is equipped with an infrared distance sensor. Assistant Professor Futami explains:
“The infrared distance sensor can measure changes in the distance from the eyelids to the frame, and by detecting raised up areas on the eyelid skin, it can recognize the number of blinks and movements of the eyeball.
Infrared distance sensors have the advantages of being lightweight and compact, not to mention they consume very little energy and are very inexpensive. Currently, we are focusing on developing devices that can recognize eye movements at the lowest possible cost. The realization of this kind of technology at a low cost will enable its widespread use for various applications, such as the ability to analyze eye fatigue and dryness as well as the user’s concentration."
When it comes to wearable devices, the increasing quality and decreasing cost of sensors will significantly influence their value. After these technologies evolve beyond a certain point, we might well witness innovations such as the integration of smartphone shops and eyeglass stores.
A Fork that Can Determine Ingredients by Sound
The fork in this photo applies the active acoustic sensing technology that Associate Professor Murao is working on. According to him, the fork is equipped with a speaker that generates minute vibrations and a microphone. So what kind of information can this fork pick up?
"For example, when you stick the fork into carrots or meat, the food absorbs the sound. The sound absorbed varies depending on the ingredient, so when you eat with this fork, you can measure how much of what kind of food you ate, like a food recording system.
It could also be used for food education. You could find out what order children eat foods in, whether they are eating unevenly, or even encourage them when they try their best to eat something new," explains Associate Professor Murao.
Associate Professor Murao is also conducting research on various other types of devices, so we asked him which devices he expects to become commonplace aside from smart glasses.
“Looking beyond smart glasses, I’d like to say the next innovation is smart contact lenses, but as the technology currently stands, this is still a long way from becoming commonplace.
Recently, there has been an increase in devices that attach to the skin. Devices that can be easily mounted on the skin include compresses and printable tattoos to measure muscle activity and pulse, touch-controlled input interfaces, and displays that show sensor data and notifications.
In addition, devices like wearable robots and robots that move over the body are starting to emerge. These are a kind of wearable device that can move up and down the arm or on your clothes. For example, this would make it possible to move a bedridden person's body to give them medicine or allow for other kinds of assistance during nursing care,” says Associate Professor Murao.
Will There Be Devices that Urge us to “Control” Ourselves Better?
The idea of robots becoming wearable devices is quite futuristic, but there is no doubt that wearable devices will expand human capabilities in the future. Perhaps we might even live to see a world like those depicted in "Ghost in the Shell" or "The Matrix".
Assistant Professor Futami says that he envisions a future in which people unconsciously control their own behavior with wearable devices.
“I think it will be possible to use the information sensed by wearable devices to make ourselves behave and perform better," he says.
Research has shown that when a computer tells you that your condition is normal based on your heart rate and other sensor data, you actually feel better. In other words, it is possible to improve people's behavior and physical and mental health by sensing their physical and mental condition and sending messages to them.
For example, even if a person has a weak sense of self-control or finds themselves in a situation that decreases their self-control, a device might be able to monitor their condition and provide them with support that urges them to improve their behavior and/or physical and mental health without them even realizing it. If this happens, I think it will be possible for wearable devices to urge people to lead better lives by helping them to realize their own natural potential,” says Assistant Professor Futami.
There seem to be many people who have already realized that visualizing their physical activity motivates them to keep exercising. A future is coming where various devices and sensors like these will allow us to visualize our physical and psychological condition. When that time comes, wearable devices may become our “life partners,” both in name and reality.