Wearable Technology – Saving Mrs. Fletcher

“Help, I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up!” Many of us remember this commercial depicting an elderly woman, known as Mrs. Fletcher, who had fallen, but with the help of a medical pendant worn like a necklace, first responders are alerted through the press of a button. LifeCall, the maker of the medical pendant, began running this commercial in 1989 in perhaps the first popular application of  wearable technology.

What is Wearable Technology?

Today, wearable technology is the Apple Watch, Fitbit, Wear OS by Google, or other fitness trackers we enjoy. According to a 2019 Pew Research survey, one in five Americans uses a smart watch or fitness tracking device. There are also augmented and virtual reality headsets, smart glasses, headphones, smart hearing aids and translation devices, and even smart clothing and skin. These devices are part of the Internet of Things and use sensors that can be incorporated into shoes, clothing, accessories, and other items that are physically worn by the user.

Why Wear Technology?   

For many years, we carried around cell phones in our hands or pockets, we used desktop computers, and we watched television to see the local weather. The functions of a cell phone, desktop computer, and TV can now all be accomplished by talking to your wrist – if it is equipped with a wearable smart device with voice assistant. Advances in technology have allowed devices to become smarter and smaller. As a result, we can now carry them closer to our bodies to accomplish an outsized number of tasks and analysis.

For example, the Apple Watch can detect an irregular heart rhythm, low blood oxygen levels, and your level of activity, all while ensuring you never miss a text message, phone call, or email. Other health tracking devices can measure blood sugar and hydration levels and detect ultraviolet ray exposure on the skin. Wireless headphones allow discrete entertainment or education while in public places, and some “hearables” are getting close to near simultaneous translation services – a capability that could erase language barriers around the world.

In 2019, Swiss researchers unveiled a wearable skin that more closely tracks movement and provides real-time feedback. They envisioned this technology as capable of enhancing the virtual reality experience, making a user feel a virtual world in addition to seeing it. This month, researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder stated they are developing an electronic skin that can heal itself like real skin. It is a malleable circuit board that can be made to fit anywhere on the body. While wearable or electronic skin is still a thing of the future, it seems the possibilities in the development of wearables are endless.

To Wear or Not to Wear

With any technological advancement, success requires large amounts of data and numerous iterations of application, including failures. For wearable technologists, this means vast amounts of data collected on individuals coupled with constant and diverse usage. While step-counting may prove immensely valuable for the individual wearer, the user may not want device developers to have access to this information or other health data that can be detected.

In the 114th Congress, I was Chairman of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing, and Trade where we held a disruptor hearing on wearable devices. I outlined the benefits of wearable technology during my opening statement.  

“In manufacturing, for example, wearables can provide businesses with greater insight into the daily operations of their production practices, workflows, and supply chain processes. In sports, coaches and athletic trainers can use wearables to better assess player recovery time and inform return-to-play considerations to reduce the risk of further injury. In the automotive sector, wearable technology can sense early signs of driver fatigue, prompting the wearable device or vehicle to send alerts, haptic feedback, or another type of warning to the driver. And, in the retail industry, retailers can use wearable technology to customize product offerings and better meet consumer preferences and demand.”

Despite the advantages of wearable technology in all sectors, a data breach could quickly overshadow any benefit. Wearable technology can collect sensitive health data, constantly project a wearer’s location, and even be hacked to manipulate device usage or effects.

One of the easiest things you can do with Internet of Things devices, most importantly wearable technology, is change the default security settings. Ensure your device is not connected to public Wi-Fi, change the default password, and ensure your software is up to date. Another safeguard for American consumers is to purchase American made or designed devices. In a study by Munster University of Applied Sciences in Germany, children’s smart watches were found to contain significant security flaws; over half of the smart watches in the study were made by a Chinese company in mainland China. Last, be a conscious consumer. Many wearable devices allow the user to tailor which information it collects and how it is shared with application and device developers.

Wearable technology has already improved the lives of millions of users. Their data and usage are constantly improving the performance of these devices. Congress should enact a federal privacy law to protect consumer data and bring piece of mind to the privacy conscious public. Until then, individual users must determine if they want their data and usage to be part of developing advanced technology or simply be a beneficiary.