Can Modular Devices Affect Health Care?

Could modular devices like Google’s Project Ara smartphone change the medical device industry forever?

Apr 26, 2014 at 2:30PM

Imagine the first time you built something out of Legos. Now imagine if each of those Lego bricks had a dedicated function -- such as a light, electrical generator, or a camera -- and it becomes easy to construct a wide variety of devices.

This concept of separating different functions into independent modules, known as "modular computing," has recently made waves in the technology sector thanks to its limitless potential for customization.

Could smartphones and wearable devices built on modular technology revolutionize medical devices as well? Let's look at two upcoming products from Google (NASDAQ:GOOG)(NASDAQ:GOOGL) and Toshiba (NASDAQOTH:TOSBF) to understand how modular versions of smartphones and smartwatches could affect the health-care sector.

Is Google's Project Ara the ultimate consumer medical tool?
Google's Project Ara, a device that compartmentalizes its components in block-like modules, has recently generated a lot of buzz as the world's first mass-marketed modular smartphone, set to be released in early 2015.

The base unit of the phone, known as the "Gray Phone," costs a mere $50, but it consists of only a frame, screen, and Wi-Fi module. Users must purchase additional blocks, which are attached to the back, to add optional features such as a camera, motion sensors, and a GPS.


Google's Project Ara. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Simply put, Google allows users to swap out components to create a smartphone as spartan or feature-rich as they desire. Google intends to launch the Gray Phone in January 2015, but it could face some pricing challenges there, as I mentioned in a previous article.

The main problem is that a $50 bare-bones phone still isn't priced competitively against Nokia's (NYSE: NOK) low-end Asha smartphones, which already offer cameras, motion sensors, location services, and wireless connections for $40 to $100.

Despite those challenges on the consumer front, Project Ara has a lot of potential uses in health care. Early developers have already showcased a pulse oximeter module for the device. Other ideas include a blood analysis module, glucose monitor, heart rate monitor, and combining several custom modules to build a medical tricorder similar to the Scanadu Scout. In other words, the Gray Phone base of the Ara could be connected to limitless modules to become the medical device equivalent of a Swiss army knife.

In this regard, Google could gain an edge over Nokia and Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL). Nokia's Asha phones are cheap, but they have tiny screens, low-resolution cameras, and weak processors that aren't designed to run medical apps or connect to peripheral devices.

Apple's iPhones and iPads are already compatible with a plethora of medical apps and peripherals, but they both cost much more than $50. Therefore, if Google is targeting lower-income markets with Project Ara, marketing it as a health-care "omnitool" could be a promising start.

Toshiba expands the idea to modular wearables
Toshiba, one of Google's Project Ara partners, is looking even further into the future with modular wearables. At the Ara Developer Conference this month, Toshiba Senior Vice President and Technology Executive Shardul Kazi demonstrated how the modular design of the Gray Phone could be used on a wearable fitness band or smartwatch.

Kazi specifically discussed the use of Bluetooth LE connections and activity tracking modules with nine-axis sensors, but the possibilities are tantalizing. For example, Google and Toshiba could release a base fitness band with a dozen empty sockets. Customers could then buy specific modules -- say, a watch, a motion sensor, a heart rate monitor, or even a glucometer -- and plug them in as needed. It would be a fully customizable smartwatch. It's an intriguing concept that start-up Blocks has also been exploring.

By comparison, Nike's FuelBand and Samsung's Galaxy Gear suddenly seem almost outdated. Modular wearables and smartphones might even affect Apple's long-rumored plans to make the iPhone 6 a health-centric device with a companion smartwatch.

The challenges ahead
Modular technology certain sounds promising, but it has some big hurdles to overcome.

With the success of the Mac, iPad, and iPhone, Apple proved that consumers don't want to swap out components as they did in the early days of computing -- they just want a product that works. While the idea of a DIY smartphone or smartwatch will appeal to tech-savvy hobbyists, the concept might seem unnecessary and complicated to others.

Nonetheless, Project Ara could eventually pave the way for a new generation of Lego-like smart medical devices to hit the market, and forever change our perception of the role of smartphones and wearables in medicine.

Invest in the next wave of health care innovation
The Economist compares this disruptive invention to the steam engine and the printing press. Business Insider says it's "the next trillion-dollar industry." And the technology behind is poised to set off one of the most remarkable health care revolutions in decades. The Motley Fool's exclusive research presentation dives into this technology's true potential, and its ability to make life-changing medical solutions never thought possible. To learn how you can invest in this unbelievable new technology, click here now to see our free report.

Leo Sun owns shares of Apple. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Apple, Google (A and C shares), and Nike. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

Money to your ears - A great FREE investing resource for you

The best way to get your regular dose of market and money insights is our suite of free podcasts ... what we like to think of as “binge-worthy finance.”

Feb 1, 2016 at 5:03PM

Whether we're in the midst of earnings season or riding out the market's lulls, you want to know the best strategies for your money.

And you'll want to go beyond the hype of screaming TV personalities, fear-mongering ads, and "analysis" from people who might have your email address ... but no track record of success.

In short, you want a voice of reason you can count on.

A 2015 Business Insider article titled, "11 websites to bookmark if you want to get rich," rated The Motley Fool as the #1 place online to get smarter about investing.

And one of the easiest, most enjoyable, most valuable ways to get your regular dose of market and money insights is our suite of free podcasts ... what we like to think of as "binge-worthy finance."

Whether you make it part of your daily commute or you save up and listen to a handful of episodes for your 50-mile bike rides or long soaks in a bubble bath (or both!), the podcasts make sense of your money.

And unlike so many who want to make the subjects of personal finance and investing complicated and scary, our podcasts are clear, insightful, and (yes, it's true) fun.

Our free suite of podcasts

Motley Fool Money features a team of our analysts discussing the week's top business and investing stories, interviews, and an inside look at the stocks on our radar. The show is also heard weekly on dozens of radio stations across the country.

The hosts of Motley Fool Answers challenge the conventional wisdom on life's biggest financial issues to reveal what you really need to know to make smart money moves.

David Gardner, co-founder of The Motley Fool, is among the most respected and trusted sources on investing. And he's the host of Rule Breaker Investing, in which he shares his insights into today's most innovative and disruptive companies ... and how to profit from them.

Market Foolery is our daily look at stocks in the news, as well as the top business and investing stories.

And Industry Focus offers a deeper dive into a specific industry and the stories making headlines. Healthcare, technology, energy, consumer goods, and other industries take turns in the spotlight.

They're all informative, entertaining, and eminently listenable. Rule Breaker Investing and Answers are timeless, so it's worth going back to and listening from the very start; the other three are focused more on today's events, so listen to the most recent first.

All are available for free at

If you're looking for a friendly voice ... with great advice on how to make the most of your money ... from a business with a lengthy track record of success ... in clear, compelling language ... I encourage you to give a listen to our free podcasts.

Head to, give them a spin, and you can subscribe there (at iTunes, Stitcher, or our other partners) if you want to receive them regularly.

It's money to your ears.


Compare Brokers