Forget Google Glass and that Fitbit you used to wear; the ultimate in wearable computing isn’t worn on your body, but embedded within it. With chips physically inserted into your body either attached to nerves or placed into muscles or skin, a new form of synergy between human and computer can occur.
How do injected electronics work?
For now, implants are explicitly for the delivery of medical services. “Once the ability to control and communicate with an implanted or injected device is achieved, a number of services can be delivered such as real-time tracking of tumour growth or localised and controlled delivery of drugs,” says Vaishali Kamat, head of digital health at Cambridge Consultants, who thinks the future is one of miniaturised, injected implants providing targeted nerve stimulation. This is called neuro-modulation.
Equip the body with any smart physiological monitoring device and the emergency services could be called automatically if someone is about to have a heart attack, for example. “Neuro-stimulation therapy could be delivered in response to an imminent epileptic seizure, or increased Parkinson’s tremors,” adds Kamat. By going straight to the nerve, it’s possible that identifying neural pathways could mean treatment for conditions like depression and obesity.
What medical uses could injectable electronics enable?
The medical uses are potentially huge. “The technology could be used to help recover tissues following a brain injury or help manage diabetes by providing an intelligent solution for controlling insulin levels,” says Collette Johnson, Medical Business Development Manager at Plextek Consulting. “Injectable electronics could also provide similar applications in chemical regulation of the brain for people with imbalances, as well as for individuals with growth hormone-related diseases. They could also be used to help control prosthetics by reacting to muscle motion.”
In June the Lieber Research Group at Harvard University unveiled an injectable mesh that was able to detect electrical signals within mice brains, which could help scientists unravel how the brain’s cells communicate. The mesh was injected through a needle just 0.1mm in diameter.
Could injected electronics be the next wave of wearable tech?
“Yes, technology is fast advancing to a stage where this is possible,” says Kamat. “These types of treatments could be made feasible by microelectronics, which can be injected or delivered at desired locations in the body via minimally invasive procedures.” For anyone squeamish about having things physically inserted under the skin, Kamat points out that ID tags have been implanted in pets for tracking purposes for years.
What about Bluetooth for the body and control by apps?
“Yes, it is possible to implant wireless transmitters in the body and get a signal to and from them via an external device,” says Kamat. “Traditionally this has been achieved via a dedicated external medical device – as has been the case in traditional implants, like pacemakers – but more recently, there has been interest in using a smartphone for this purpose.”
Trouble is, that requires implanting a device in the body equipped with some kind of wireless protocol, the most obvious being Bluetooth. “Getting a Bluetooth signal out of the body is not a simple task, given that the body absorbs most of the 2.4GHz signal,” says Kamat. “However, we are doing work in this space and have developed some proprietary technology that makes this feasible.”
Is this biohacking?
Mention injected electronics and embedded wearables and talk of biohacking and cyborgsnaturally follows, but this isn’t about creating superior beings. “Biohacking varies greatly from the practice of inserting implants to gene sequencing, and working with plants and bacteria to blood and electronic sensors,” says Dr Kevin Curran, IEEE Technical Expert, who thinks that practitioners of biohacking mostly aspire to help disabled people. “However, biohackers do share a belief in the power of technology to enhance our beings,” he says.
Researchers at the University of California in San Diego recently developed a bio-tattoo that monitors sweat. “This can be classified as bio-hacking as these sensors, which are applied to the skin, can track an athlete’s chemical balance to gauge his physical activity,” says Curran.
Is this a natural progression from self-quantification?
“Implants could be used to monitor activities and extend the current approach of wearables in health and wellbeing,” says Johnson. “Implants can offer feedback for consumers, providing insight into hormone levels, adrenaline release, lactose build-up, hydration and nutrition.”
In recent years wearable technology and apps have become a key way of getting people to take more interest in being active. “Health apps are one of the best sellers in the app store and the self-quantification movement is growing,” says Curran, who thinks that demand for measuring our bodies will only grow. “We are seeing more wrist-wrapped devices with increased processing and power in addition to many more sensors for reading heart rate, bio data, steps taken, estimated calories burned, quality of sleep, and more.”
He gives the example of the Samsung Galaxy S5, which can read blood flow through its camera. The Apple Watch can read heart-rate, too. “However, these are limited and subject to lossy readings,” he says. An injected device needs to be highly accurate and reliable if it’s to serve any medical purpose.
Could we use implants as ID or to make payments?
Carrying smart cards to use public transport and using phones for Apple Pay might seem like thoroughly modern tech, but a lot of ID-based transactions could very easily be done via implants. “Several services could be enabled if you think of the implanted electronics as a replacement for some of the gadgets or things we carry with us today, for example for identification and payment,” says Kamat. “A tiny chip placed subcutaneously in your wrist could serve as your credit card or driver’s licence, for example.”
However, it could get a lot more subtle. “Implanted electronics can allow better, more accurate sensing of various physiological parameters, but it can also enable us to effect reactions or movement in response to things that the body is not capable of sensing, such as certain frequencies of sound or light,” says Kamat.
It’s not all about us. The ability to inject electronics applies to all living organisms, not just people. “There is potential for non-medical applications, particularly involving environmental monitoring of plant matter in rainforests,” says Johnson. “The information gained from the technology would help the industry better understand particular environmental impacts and adapt approaches in other ecosystems.”
But, mostly, it is about us. “Ultimately we want our devices to disappear into our surroundings and just ‘know’ what to do in order to make our lives more bearable,” says Curran. “Where better to disappear than inside ourselves?”