But it won’t happen quickly



August 15, 2014

THIS WEEK we heard the news that Intel is teaming up with the Michael J Fox Foundation (MJFF) to improve research and treatment for Parkinson’s disease by using big data analytics and wearable devices.

The idea is that Intel will use a big data analytics platform to detect patterns in data collected from patients via wearables, which will monitor symptoms. Intel claims that this will help researchers and physicians measure progression of the disease by capturing and objectively measuring patients’ actual experiences and thus speed the progress of breakthroughs in drug development, diagnosis and treatment.

The research project means the wearables will be depended upon for gathering and transmitting objective, experiential data in real time, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. With this approach, Intel said its researchers could go from looking at a very small number of data points to analysing hundreds of readings per second from thousands of patients.

While this is not only brilliant news for the MJFF and the future of the Parkinson’s disease, it’s also a potential game changer for the entire health industry, indicating that large scale and influential technology companies are beginning see the potential impact that their technologies can have on people with real illnesses.

I believe it certainly won’t be the last partnership of this type from Intel and other leading technology companies. If anything, Intel’s engagement with the MJFF will be a leading example of this type of development, and those firms that haven’t already will be spurred on by the semiconductor maker’s efforts to research and develop ideas for how wearables can have a significant impact on helping patients with incurable illnesses to improve their lives.

However, there’s one major caveat here. Although this might happen and begin to improve people’s lives, it’s not going to happen quickly. It’s going to take some time for the market to develop. And then there’s also the view that wearable themselves aren’t ready for mass markets, let alone the health sector, because they aren’t accurate enough in collection of data yet.

Just two month ago, I slated wearables in an earlier column for their inability to track activities correctly after my findings during a 135 miles charity hike of a group of technology journalists, who all carried similar devices. What struck me while completing the walking, cycling and kayaking were the anomalies seen between each of our wearable devices. Not one of them told the same story.

After this discovery, I suggested that we should perhaps be more critical of the tracking devices we have tied to our limbs, and question whether wearable fitness tracking devices are really worth investing in and that maybe, wearables just aren’t ready yet.

But even if the accuracy of wearable technology does improve, it’s not the only thing standing in its way in becoming as big, if not bigger, than smartphones. Intel itself has said that wearable technology won’t succeed until we accommodate people’s perceptions.

In a keynote address at the Wearable Technology Show in March, Intel futurist Steve Brown told delegates that up to now, the industry has concentrated on doing what is possible rather than what people want, or considering the connotations attached to it.

Citing the example of the Bluetooth headset, which 15 years on continues to have negative connotations when it’s seen on wearers, he questioned the value in devices that make the user be perceived in a certain way, because they don’t convey the right message to outsiders.

“Be bold – don’t let the engineers lead you,” he told product designers. “Think about the whole package – the device has to fit in with what’s important to people.”

Brown explained that wearables are about “helping people be their best selves”, and to achieve that, a device has to be personal to them and to give their life meaning, in the same way that wristwatches can elicit an emotional attachment and act as a signifier of status and personality.

So it seems a lot needs to be done to convince people that wearables have value, including both the people that make up the technology companies and the users they are targeting.

Consultancy firm Deloitte has also predicted that the health sector, though it’s probably one of the most promising industries for wearable technology to be able to revolutionise, is going to take a long time before see we any real changes.

“Despite the projected growth and burgeoning consumer interest in everything from fitness bands to smart wrist watches to Google Glass-like hardware, history suggests that the healthcare system and indeed, other government agencies, are likely to be slow to adopt,” Deloitte UK research director Karen Taylor predicted in a blog post.

“The question that remains is how can the potential of wearable technology be realised in an industry that struggles to embrace technology in its interface with patients and the public?”

Taylor believes that leaders who fully understand the potential of wearable technology are needed – people who have the vision to appreciate the application of wearable technology in healthcare.

“This doesn’t mean side-lining human interactions as kindness, compassion and care cannot be replaced by machines. Nor can such technology replace the clinical judgment that comes from years of training,” she added. “What is does mean is embracing the use of technology to remove the routine and functional aspects of healthcare, and genuinely support staff to work differently,” Taylor concluded.

While the use of wearables to help cure illnesses might seem a little far-fetched, it’s a realistic potential goal. It’s just going to take a lot of time and effort from big technology companies that people trust to promote the idea, as Intel has started to do. Then, before you know it, wearables could become an intrinsic and eventually natural facet of the healthcare system. µ



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