The Leap Ahead: Computational Biology Promises to Jumpstart Wearables Applications

crystal-ball-equationA lot of the focus in wearable computing has been on delivering products that help everyday users monitor some of the more basic activity traits, such as steps taken and heart rate. While these are certainly useful metrics for health monitoring, they do not paint the full picture. Computational biologists instead study the chemical changes that occur in people’s bodies with the help of optical sensors, non-invasive devices that use the red-to-near-infrared spectral region to assess the chemical changes that occur in the user’s blood vessels, among other places. By leveraging this cutting-edge technology and wearable computing, we are equipped to understand the changes that occur in a person’s body at a whole new level. The implications of this change span from improved training of athletes to better management of chronic diseases and healthcare.

The data provided by optical sensors combined with the insightful analysis conducted by computational biologists has the potential to change the dynamics of both the sports and medical industries. Some interesting recent cases in research that show the potential for disruption include:

  • Researchers at the National Technical University of Athens, have helped individuals self-manage diabetes by stimulating the function of an artificial pancreas with fully embedded wearable systems.
  • A paper in the Journal of Biomechanics shows promising results for wearables in athletic training. Scientists mapped out the physiology of athletes’ ski-jumps in order to determine the biological constraints of each individual’s approach. By comparing data across 22 different skiiers, the scientists were able to determine that the wearable system was a very promising tool for training that captured information beyond the capacity of a traditional camera.
  • Researchers at Texas A&M University are investigating the use of optical sensors to interact with dermally-implanted microparticle sensors. This technology could enable cost cutting and continuous blood chemistry monitoring.
  • Optical sensors used to monitor both athletic performance and overall health by researchers at the Dublin Institute of Technology. The sophisticated sensors interpret user’s sweat particles in order to deduce what is going on at a biological level. One of the sensors measured pH levels of sweat particles in order to deduce dehydration while athletes were running. This is a huge stride for activity tracking because it represents real time monitoring of athletic performance and biological signals.

But what kinds of startups and established companies are developing the devices that will enable computational biology analysis? We’ve featured a few of them: Hexoskin produces a smart textile shirt that contains multiple sensors that capture metrics concerning the cardiovascular and pulmonary systems;  MC10’s Biostamp product has the capacity to measure heart rate, body temperature, and other vital rates in a disposable stamp, similar to a temporary tattoo; Electrozyme, a startup from the University of California at San Diego, created a device in the same “smart tattoo” form factor that analyzes sweat to provide in-depth metrics. In addition to wearable devices, implant devices, such as Medtronic’s insertable cardiac monitor, also provide biodata that will be useful for computational biology. Lastly, although we are not at liberty to disclose many details, we have met with Founders Riaan Conradie and Laurence Olivier of South Africa based entity HealthQ Technologies. Together in partnership with a US entity based in Atlanta GA, the company has developed some groundbreaking technology. From our discussions, it is clear that this is a well funded venture worth watching as they expect to launch with a non-invasive sensor that is linked to a cloud based computational model to yield rich metabolic and performance related metrics and predictive modeling as set out above.

Overall, we are seeing a very important trend in wearable computing that could spark a huge change in multiple industries. As more computational biologists continue focusing on the valuable data provided by wearable technology and sensors, users will benefit from new insights from their data. Analytics companies with competencies in computational biology will also benefit from increasing use of wearable and activity tracking devices. In the future, we could see patients armed with nothing more than a well-engineered, non-invasive sensor patch, which will be able to track the bio-chemical changes that are occurring in their bodies. We may even see a trend where enough data is collected by scientists and computational biologists to the point where predictive modeling of potential illnesses can be conducted by computational biologists. Although we may not be at this level quite yet, the research is very promising and a strong indicator that we are on the right track.

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