Wearable technology, or “Wearables,” was valued at $20 billion in 2015 and is estimated to grow to almost $100 billion in 2023, according to a report by IDTechEx analysts. Currently, the market is dominated by a few players, such as Apple, Google, Samsung, Microsoft, and Vuzix.
Wearables include items like glasses, headsets, pedometers, and watches. Most consumers use these products for fitness, fashion, communication, or news and social media updates. What is not often talked about is how wearable technology can enrich the lives of people with disabilities.
This guide will talk about the definition of wearable technology, how it impacts people’s lives, the advantages and disadvantages of this technology, and the potential uses for wearables to help people with disabilities.
What Is Wearable Technology?
Simply put, wearable technology includes devices that consumers can wear on their body. These wearables typically have convenient functions that make life easier. From watches to glasses, these products can complete multiple tasks, such as tracking activity levels, sending communications, and accessing information from the web.
However, not all wearables have these features. Some wearables have limited functions and are used for extremely specific purposes.
How Does Wearable Technology Work?
According to a wearable technology guide by Georgia 4-H, wearable devices use multiple sensors, microprocessors, and transmitters to perform several functions. These technologies make use of sensors to detect movement, position, temperature, location, sleep, and even mood to monitor users’ fitness levels and general health.
Wearable gear is equipped with microprocessors that “extract, transform, and load data to a transmittable format,” explains the Georgia 4-H guide. Transmitters upload the data gathered by the sensors and converted by microprocessors to cloud storage for further analysis and then for access to users.
How Wearable Technology Impacts Lives
Wearable technology first became extremely popular in the health and fitness world. According to Pew Research Center, one in five (21 percent) US adults use a smartwatch or wearable fitness tracker. They use their wearable gear to track steps taken per day, record miles jogged, and measure heart rate. Wearable technologies with advanced features can also monitor sleep patterns, food consumption, and calorie intake.
Used in congruence with fitness apps, smartwatches and fitness trackers provide a comprehensive report on the user’s activity levels and a glimpse into their general health. Wearables have helped raise awareness in users about personal habits and behaviors that affect their health and fitness. People who use fitness trackers are more conscious of how much exercise, sleep, and calories they are getting on a daily basis.
These technologies have brought major changes in the way people understand and approach health and fitness.
The impact of wearable technology in personal health is always talked about, but wearables have also revolutionized public health. Smartwatches, fitness trackers, and mobile sensors collect scores of data used for many researches that aim to enhance public health.
In a 2019 article published in Hopkins Bloomberg Public Health magazine, Vadim Zipunnikov, assistant professor in biostatistics and co-leader of the Wearable and Implantable Technology group, explains how they use mobile sensors to study how patterns of physical activity and sedentary time affect people’s health. They are also using data from mobile sensors to understand sleep and how it affects different dimensions of health.
Zupunnikov is also working with Kathleen Merikangas, adjunct professor in epidemiology and mental health and chief of the Genetic Epidemiology Research Branch at the National Institute of Mental Health. They are using wearables to gather data on physical activity and sleep patterns for over 2,000 people to gain a better understanding of depression, bipolar disorder, migraines, and other mental and neurological conditions.
Potential Risks Wearable Technology
The potential applications and benefits of wearable technology are bountiful. Wearables have forever changed people’s perception of health and fitness and molded health habits and behaviors. These technologies have also revolutionized healthcare and public health research.
While the rewards are plenty, wearable technology also comes with its own risks to both users and manufacturers.
- Privacy concerns.Fitness trackers and other wearable devices collect massive amounts of personal data on a daily basis, including locations, activities, and behavioral patterns. Manufacturers can access users’ data and may use it for purposes other than how users intend their information to be used. Employers who also require their workers to use wearables may also be breaching their employees’ privacy.
- Health hazards.Electronic devices can malfunction, causing injuries or even death to wearers. In the past, about 10,000 fitness trackers from a well-known brand were recalled due to customer complaints of wrist rashes, blisters, and burning sensations when wearing the product. According to the company, those cases may be allergic reactions to nickel or other chemicals used in the fitness tracker.
- Cyber risks.Any data saved in a computer or cloud storage can be subject to cyber attacks and security breaches. Robust data security is essential to protect users’ privacy and personal information.
Wearable technology offers many rewards, but it also brings about serious risks. It is essential to weigh in on the pros and cons before deciding to use a wearable device. Once a user’s data is leaked on the web, it is nearly impossible to erase it completely.
When purchasing any wearable tech, always buy from a reputable manufacturer that consistently produces high-quality products and will not use customers’ data for other purposes
For smartwatches and fitness bands, make sure to have backup watch bands and straps at home. When the current one breaks, you can get it replaced immediately, and it won’t disrupt your daily routine.
Wearable Technologies for People with Disabilities
“Wearable technology has so much potential to enrich the lives of people with disabilities, not only giving them more independence, but also giving them a voice,” says The National Business and Disability Council at Viscardi Center.
Wearable devices allow people with disabilities to perform everyday tasks, like browsing the web, checking the weather, finding recipes online, sending emails, and using social media through voice-activated and gesture controls.
The use of wearables for augmenting the everyday healthcare, rehabilitation, and lives of people with disabilities, chronic conditions, and the elderly is nothing new. For example, people with limited hearing have long used hearing assistive technology (HATS) to enhance listening and communication.
New devices, however, are bringing more improvements to the lives of people with disabilities, as well as positive changes in medical care for all individuals.
Wearables for People with Disabilities
- Smartwatches and Fitness Trackers
Smartwatches can perform a variety of functions that help people with vision, hearing, and physical impairments. For example, the Apple watch offers VoiceOver to help users with vision impairments navigate the system.The Apple watch also has zoom features and an oversized watch face for individuals with limited vision. Apple’s Taptic Engine uses a haptic feedback system that warns the user about notifications, messages, or reminders with a “tap” on the wrist.Google’s Android Wear also has a readout feature called TalkBack. Moreover, it has Google Assistant, which is Android Wear’s most helpful feature for accessibility. Google Assistant can send messages and perform other tasks with the press of a button or a voice command.Samsung Gear offers a smoother screen reader function, grayscale mode, and inverted color option for higher visibility.Smartwatches and fitness trackers have additional potential applications in improving the healthcare of people with disabilities, mental illness, and chronic conditions. These devices can help users take their medication, exercise, or eat their meal on time by sending daily reminders. In emergency situations, wearers can send for help using their smartwatches as well.Fitness trackers collect important data on users’ physical activity levels, sleep patterns, and food intake, which can be used by healthcare professionals to provide personalized health recommendations. Adult children can also use smartwatches and fitness trackers to keep track of the whereabouts of parents with dementia.Smartwatches and fitness trackers are small but handy devices. These wearable devices combine many functions, bringing many conveniences to its users. They also have plenty of potential in helping people with disabilities gain more independence and live their lives normally.
- Google Glass
People with physical disabilities, especially with limited arm and hand use, are able to utilize voice control and gesture features in Google Glass to record videos, browse the web, access maps and news, send emails, use social media, and use apps on connected smart devices.A team of researchers at Stanford is developing a new aid to help people with autism understand what others are thinking and feeling. This new technology, dubbed “Superpower Glass,” combined Google Glass with an app that uses Artificial Intelligence (AI) to read people’s facial expression and associates it with an emoji. For now, the app can only identify eight core facial expressions: happiness, sadness, anger, disgust, surprise, fear, contempt, and neutral.For people with vision impairments, Google Glass helps them navigate places and experience their environment with the built-in camera and audio output. The smart glasses can identify objects and the exact location and relay audio feedback to the wearer.
OrCam helps people with vision-related disabilities identify objects they cannot see and read texts through audio feedback. The OrCam uses a tiny camera and an earpiece, which can be attached to eyeglasses, to read and convey information audibly.People with limited vision can use the OrCam to read publications and screens, navigate various locations, and avoid objects in their way. The OrCam can recognize and remember faces, landmarks, products, and more.
- Virtual Reality Headset
Virtual reality can help people with disabilities try experiences that would typically be out-of-reach. With virtual reality, individuals with limited mobility can simulate climbing a mountain, surfing, skateboarding, and playing certain sports.Virtual environments can also increase safety for people with autism and make traveling easier for people with limited mobility. They can use virtual environments to familiarize themselves with places, plan convenient routes, and identify possible obstacles before heading out.In the field of Special Education, Virtual Learning Environments (VLE) are used to enrich people with learning disabilities. Virtual reality provides safe environments for learners to explore and interact with the world and their surroundings. VLEs also help simulate real-world experiences, which are essential for students with learning disabilities to acquire important life skills, such as spatial abilities, community literacy skills, purchasing skills, social skills, and safety skills.
The Future of Wearable Technology
Wearable technology has long been used to improve the lives of people with disabilities. In the coming years, more developments in this field are anticipated to further enhance the quality of life, healthcare, and rehabilitation of all people, including those with disabilities.
These advancements will include technologies that augment one sense to replace the absence of another. One example is integrated haptics in clothing and textiles that can translate sound to vibrations to let deaf people experience music.
More sophisticated screen readers, voice- and gesture-based control, and an overall smoother experience with wearables are some of the features we should expect in future wearable technology for people with disabilities.
Gelfand, Alexander. (2019). “How Wearable and Implantable Technology is Changing the Future of Health Care.” Hopkins Public Health Magazine.
Georgia 4-H. (n.d.). “Study Guide Wearable Technology.” Georgia 4-H. Retrieved on July 20, 2020.
Hayward, J., Dr. Guillaume Chansin, and Dr. Harry Zervos. (2016). “Wearable Technology 2016-2026: Markets, Players, and 10-Year Forecasts.” IDTechEx.
Jeffs, Tara. (2009). “Virtual Reality and Special Needs.” Themes in Science and Technology Education. Special Issue, 253-268.
Matchar, Emily. (2018). “’Superpower Glass’ Helps Kids With Autism Understand Emotions.” Smithsonian Magazine.
National Business & Disability Council (NBDC) at The Viscardi Center. (2016). “Technical Assistance Guide on Wearable Technology for People with Disabilities.” National Business & Disability Council (NBDC) at The Viscardi Center.
Vogels, Emily. (2020). “About One-in-Five Americans Use a Smart Watch or Fitness Tracker.” Pew Research Center.