Tom Winstanley, Head of Innovation at IT services company, NTT DATA UK looks at the evolution of wearables and why so many tech companies are jumping on the health and wellbeing bandwagon.

How has wearable technology evolved and changed since it was first introduced a decade ago?

Depending on your definition, wearables have been around a lot longer than ten years – I still remember the joy I experienced with the calculator watch I had as a child, for instance. In fact, arguably the first VR experience was the Stereoscope in 1838, created by Charles Wheatstone. While modern smartwatches are considerably more sophisticated, the evolution and adoption of wearable technologies has actually been a lot slower than some might have predicted a decade ago. In short, despite years of refinement, wearable technologies have not had the transformative impact on society that many anticipated.

There has been a lot of promise, a lot of hope, but ultimately a lot of false dawns in the last ten years. Consider AR headsets as an example. The excitement around such products is usually enormous, but the reality is that, although the market is finally maturing for both industrial and consumer headsets, these products don’t yet live up to expectations.

For a long time, wearables were simply technology looking for a problem. In more recent years, however, innovations in AI, augmented realities and smart fabrics have converged with genuine societal needs to create more compelling solutions. This, combined with the rise of the ‘Internet of Living Things’, where genetic data can be analysed in real time, is pointing to a future where wearables start to fulfil their potential.

What are the latest developments in the wearable technology space?

One of the key aspects of recent developments in the wearables space is the growth of direct partnerships between technology vendors and brands to solve specific problems. Just one example of this is the collaboration between health insurer Vitality, and the wearable tracker Fitbit. Being able to directly link actual physical data to a health insurance company shows a merging of industries which wouldn’t have been probable, let alone possible several years ago.

Such commercial applications, combining wearables with a broader range of use cases, is driving an increasing acceptance of such technologies, which, in turn, is encouraging further experimentation in this field. Apple’s smart watch was used recently for the quickest patient recruitment exercise ever completed using a medical grade device, for example.

We are also seeing a cross-pollination of ideas when it comes to wearables. NTT Group’s Hitoe ‘smart shirt’ is an example of this process. Developed over many years in the R&D department, Hitoe was originally launched as an aid for elite sports performance. However, now the material is finding a wide range of alternative applications in the multiple industries, including healthcare, for example remotely monitoring elderly patients in case of falls. It is also gaining traction as a method for tracking and guaranteeing the safety of workers in dangerous situations. These applications are far removed from the original use case, but it shows how innovators are now getting to grips with where wearable technology is actually needed and delivers the greatest value.

Why is health such an important field for technology brands at the moment?

With the rise of ‘tech for good’ as its own industry there is an increased need and demand for meaning and purpose in technology. At the same time as tech companies compete for a position in this space, with the likes of Amazon, Google and Apple investing heavily, consumers’ interest in health is booming. It’s a lucrative industry, which is ever-present in the lives of consumers, and tech companies are increasingly mindful of this.

The practical implications of a wearable technology with genuine health benefits, such as Hitoe, which can monitor heart rate, detect falls and track biometric information, are simply staggering. For example, by understanding the difference between serious incidents and minor injuries, the technology could be a huge cost-saver by determining the need for hospital treatment or not. In fact, due to the sensor’s ability to capture data such as ECG and EMG and provide alerts in real time, issues could be spotted before they happen. Essentially, in the context of its potential for preventative applications, the wearable could save not only costs, but lives.

What are your personal predictions about what the future of wearable health technology has in store?

While wearable technology hasn’t taken off in the way we might have expected in the last decade or so, we are genuinely on the cusp of greatness when it comes to wearable health technology. In the not too distant future, I fully expect to see products and services launch that were previously only a fantasy.

Despite modern electronics pushing boundaries in developing better batteries, the amount of available energy to power a device is ultimately limited. At the same time, however, smaller, more portable wearables with long-lasting power are in high demand. To solve this problem, manufacturers will look to self-renewing energy sources to power better products, for longer. Ambient energy harvesting, which converts inexhaustible sources of power, such as light, thermal, mechanical or vibration energy, into usable electrical energy will extend a product’s operational lifetime and satisfy the consumer’s desires.

Another area that improved wearable tech can revolutionise is healthcare itself. Imagine a doctor who has access to all the latest research at any given time, can pull up records within seconds and has all the relevant information to hand to make informed decisions about the patient’s health. At a recent innovation event at Great Ormond Street Hospital, with whom NTT DATA is partnered in the UK, this “iron man for medical professionals” was much discussed, and it isn’t as far-fetched as you may believe. All of the technology to make this a reality already exists, so it’s a case of when, rather than if.