This is a wonderful time for wearable Health Tech. Many separate industries are all maturing at the same time, creating a synergy that is raising all boats. Wearables are benefiting enormously from the low-cost and high-quality components that have been developed for the huge smartphone market, for example. Another area that could have a major impact — especially for health and medical applications — is the advent of printed electronics. Rather than depend on discrete components assembled on circuit boards, all the electronic components are fabricated directly on a substrate using ink jet, silk screen, or other standard printing techniques. The result is much lower material and production costs.
For a stunning example of what this can mean, consider a wearable device developed by researchers at the University of Tokyo. Its function is easy to describe; it is an armband worn by a patient, and if the skin temperature exceeds a certain preset level, an alarm sounds. That sounds simple enough, but it gets more complex when you realize that it has no batteries, and is printed on a flexible plastic substrate. Flexible organic semiconductor materials are used to create a controlling circuit, as well as a sensor and a piezoelectric speaker. The band also includes photovoltaic panels that provide power harvested from the ambient lighting, eliminating the need for batteries.
The incredible aspect of this device is that it could be produced at a low enough cost to make it disposable. This could be important in a clinical setting, as it would eliminate the need for sterilization between uses. The same approach could be used for other applications as well, using sensors to monitor patient heart rate or relative blood pressure. It also could incorporate wireless communications to trigger alerts instead of the audible alarm. Being able to gather patient vital sign data continuously using a low-cost disposable device could have a huge positive impact on treatment outcomes.