A hallmark of cyberpunk science fiction is human augmentation leading to transhumanism. We may still be several decades (or even centuries) away from true transhumanism, but augmentation in the form of wearable tech is already in its infancy. To celebrate Wearable Tech Month here at Hackster, we rounded up some of the most interesting wearable research from the past few years.
First, let’s look at new developments that refine today’s wearable tech. The current consumer wearable tech market is full of smartwatches and fitness trackers, but those don’t exactly feel like something out of a cyberpunk movie. These new developments, however, push us a little closer in that direction.
This wearable provides data about its user’s vitals. It gathers that data by analyzing the user’s sweat, which contains valuable information in the form of chemical signatures. It doesn’t require a battery because it receives power in the same way as NFC (Near-Field Communication) devices: wirelessly from radio waves in the air. It is disposable and affordable, but can still analyze sweat volume, pH levels, lactate, glucose, and electrolyte concentration.
Sleep apnea is a very common disorder that many do not take as seriously as they should. Diagnosing sleep apnea today requires a sleep study in which the patient must wear a bulky and uncomfortable array of sensors overnight. To make diagnostic sleep studies less unpleasant, Onera Health developed this bio-impedance patch. The patient wears this unobtrusive patch on their chest and it gathers data by passing a small current through their chest. A deep learning model analyzes that data and is able to diagnose sleep apnea with 73% accuracy — a rate that should improve with better model training.
Similar to the first patch, this wearable “e-skin” monitors a user’s health by analyzing their sweat. But this patch differs in how it receives power. Instead of relying on radio waves from an external source, this patch uses the sweat itself to generate electricity. Sweat contains lactate, which this patch can convert into a tiny electrical current. It is a very small amount of power, but the researchers claim that it is enough for the e-skin’s sensors and a Bluetooth transmitter.
Everything we’ve covered so far is still in development, but this Gatorade Gx Sweat Patch is on the market right now — you can even buy it at your local Dick’s Sporting Goods store. The patch is passive and contains no electronic components. It relies on a chemical reaction that correlates with hydration level. That chemical reaction causes a color change in the patch. A companion app provides an accurate analysis of the color change, helping users determine their exact hydration status.
As we move further from the current state of the consumer market and towards new territory, we find a new class of wearable HMIs (Human-Machine Interfaces). These HMIs facilitate interesting new ways for us to interact with technology and have a lot of potential alongside emerging mixed reality advances.
This patch is a bit like a wearable laptop touchpad. Like the touchpad on your MacBook, it can detect touches at multiple points. But its developers at Germany’s Saarland University designed the patch to be worn on the user’s palm. The prototype patch connects to a Raspberry Pi Zero single-board computer (SBC) strapped to the user’s wrist. The result is a wireless, wearable touchpad that the wearer can use to control their smartphone, virtual reality headset, and more.
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) disease causes sufferers to lose muscle control, which makes it difficult for them to communicate and to interact with technology. But even people with advanced ALS retain some small amount of muscle control, especially of their facial muscles. This patch, worn on the face, can detect miniscule muscle movements. A machine learning model analyzes those movements and determines what expression the user is attempting to make. It can only detect three facial expressions, but users can chain those together in unique combinations to communicate more complex ideas.
Those with ALS and other mobility-affecting conditions also have trouble controlling their wheelchairs. This electroencephalography (EEG) brain-machine interface has a traditional scalp sensor, an e-skin nano-membrane electrode, and a wearable Bluetooth transceiver. It sends EEG data via Bluetooth to a tablet or computer up to 15 meters away. A deep learning neural network then interprets the EEG data and provides control commands to an electric wheelchair, letting the user navigate without the assistance of a caretaker.
Prostheses are already very “cyberpunk,” thanks to our modern robotic technology. But even the best prosthetic limbs don’t provide much feedback to the wearer. This new synthetic skin could change that. Magnetic beads embedded in the soft, flexible skin cause measurable changes in a magnetic field in response to pressure. That gives the skin a sense of touch. This technology is suitable for robots now, but needs more development for prosthesis use so that wearers can perceive the signals coming from the e-skin.
This is a prototype that you can build right now, courtesy of Zack Freedman. It is a glove-like wearable that detects each finger’s position as well as overall hand movement. The idea is that wearers can use the glove to perform actions on a connected computer by completing D&D-esque “somatic” hand movements. But while the prototype hardware is ready, software implementations are not. However, enterprising developers with programming skills can try their hand at creating software interfaces for this Somatic Data Glove.
All wearable devices face a similar challenge: where to get power. The last thing consumers want is another device that they have to charge every night. That’s why researchers are developing technology that can passively harvest enough energy to power wearable devices.
This patch relies on simple electromagnetic principles. If you pass electric current through a coil of wire, you generate a magnetic field. But the opposite is also true: if you move a magnet through a coil, you generate electric current. This patch utilizes that effect to turn body movement — the stretching and twisting of skin — into usable power. The patch contains microscopic magnetic particles in a flexible silicone matrix. Stretching or twisting the patch causes the magnetic particles to move within the matrix, inducing current. The patch generated up to 4.27mA per square centimeter of material, which is enough to power very efficient devices.
Human bodies produce waste heat as a byproduct of metabolic processes. Heat is, of course, energy. By harnessing that waste heat, we can harvest energy that would otherwise be lost to the air around us. This wearable patch does so with a thermoelectric generator (TEG) on a small scale. TEGs generate electricity in the presence of a temperature differential. They usually work at large scales, such as to utilize waste heat from power plants. But in this case, the TEG uses the difference in temperature between to wearer’s skin and the ambient air to generate electricity.
It’s time for the projects that really feel like they came straight out of a Neal Stephenson novel. These are the wearables that scream “cyberpunk” in bright, neon letters on a backdrop of a rainy dystopian city.
When you think of human augmentation, you probably imagine enhanced cybernetic muscles that let people lift cars or jump over houses. This Myoshirt is as close as we can get with current technology. It is a vest and sleeve system that adds an artificial motor-retractable tendon to the user’s arm, giving them the ability to lift more weight. It is useful for people who lack natural muscle strength and people who need to lift more than normal.
The Matrix is likely the most well-known cyberpunk movie in existence. In a very memorable scene, protagonist Neo is able to “download” the knowledge to perform kung-fu. Such a thing is possible with this wearable — indirectly at least. This forearm-mounted device stimulates muscles with electricity, causing them to contract. By controlling the electrical stimulation, it is possible to force the wearer to perform a predetermined series of hand movements. Theoretically, the device would allow people to complete tasks with their hands as if they already had the trained muscle memory to do so.
Cyberpunk isn’t just about technology, it is also about aesthetics. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University realized that and created electronic patches that people would actually want to wear. The simple truth is that people are less likely to use ugly devices. That is especially true when they have to wear those devices. That’s why ElectroDermis looks cool. Many of the technologies mentioned in this article would work with the ElectroDermis design ethos and would have a much better chance at widespread adoption, because humans care about style.
What is your favorite emerging wearable technology? Let us know in the comments!