For many consumers and investors, the term "wearable tech" immediately conjures up thoughts of Google (NASDAQ:GOOGL) Glass, smartwatches, and Nike (NYSE:NKE) fitness bands. These products are fulfilling the dream of "ubiquitous computing," a phrase often championed by Google -- where computers are no longer stationary devices, but rather extensions of our bodies which constantly enhance and improve our everyday lives.
Yet beyond being cool consumer devices, these technologies could make a huge impact over the next decade in the health care industry. Let's examine three major ways that wearable tech will improve health care, and the companies that are making that revolution happen.
Turning personal fitness into a social networking game
Let's start with a familiar product: fitness bands. Jawbone, a company which was previously known for its audio products, released the Jawbone Up fitness bracelet in November 2011.
The Jawbone Up tracks physical activity and movement, recording the number of steps taken daily and calories burned, and uploads results to an online community. This layer of social connectivity fueled the product's popularity, as people started competing against each other to reach certain fitness goals. The Up is also a personal trainer of sorts, using a vibrating alarm to wake users up and remind them when they have remained sedentary for too long.
Last February, Nike launched the FuelBand, a similar bracelet with added Bluetooth connectivity for real-time synchronization with iOS devices. That was a major improvement over the Up, which had to be plugged into a computer for results to be uploaded. The FuelBand also added video game-like "achievements" to its Nike+ social network, which gave users an added incentive to stick to their fitness routines.
Jawbone caught up to Nike recently with the release of the Up24, which added Bluetooth support and smartphone synchronization. Other fitness bracelets, such as the Fitbit Flex, Basis Band, and the Samsung Galaxy Gear smartwatch are also battling it out for a piece of this lucrative market.
Over the next decade, these products will rise in popularity and cause some major damage to the market for weight loss programs. Weight Watchers International (NASDAQ:WW), which sells point-based weight loss programs to customers, has been buckling under the pressure caused by these fitness bands and other free calorie-tracking apps.
Last quarter, Weight Watchers reported a 10.5% year-over-year decline in earnings and an 8.5% drop in revenue, attributing some of its losses to these disruptive technologies.
Wearable devices will improve the quality of life for patients
However, there's much more to wearable tech than doing laps with a bracelet on. Over the next decade, we will likely see more wearable products capable of improving the lives of patients with diabetes, heart conditions, and other ailments.
Medtronic (NYSE:MDT), the company which created the first battery-operated wearable external pacemaker in 1957, is one of the pioneers in this industry. Today, the company's pacemakers can be continuously monitored remotely through its CareLink network.
Last month, Medtronic made history again when the FDA approved the MiniMed 530G, a wearable artificial pancreas designed for patients with type 1 diabetes. Type 1 diabetes patients cannot produce any insulin at all, whereas type 2 diabetes patients suffer from insulin deficiency. As a result, type 1 diabetes patients have to continuously control their glucose levels throughout the day with pin pricks and insulin injections.
The MiniMed 530's pump injects insulin until the continuous glucose monitor detects blood glucose levels dropping to a defined threshold. It's not a closed loop system, but it's a major improvement over other available technologies, like Insulet's manually operated OmniPod insulin management system.
Medtronic is not the only company that is working to create a wearable artificial pancreas -- Johnson & Johnson, which is partnered with DexCom, is also working to create a competing product, Animas, that the companies claim will be the first closed loop artificial pancreas.
As a result of increased competition, wearable devices like these could become smaller and more efficient, improving the lives of patients with debilitating ailments.
Meet the doctors of the future
Wearable tech could also substantially improve the quality of patient care in hospitals across the world.
Today, doctors and nurses often use iPads in their practices to access patients' electronic health records (EHRs), which are often input via clinical speech recognition software from Nuance Communications.
However, some doctors have taken iPad usage to the next level by using them in actual surgeries. An iPad app from Fraunhofer Institute of Medical Image Computing MEVIS in Germany uses augmented reality (a digital layer over a real-time image) to assist in liver tumor removals. The app shows the location of critical vessels in the liver to ensure that the surgeon does not accidentally damage them.
If that app were ported to Google Glass, surgeons could have a completely hands-free augmented reality view of the patient -- bringing us a major step closer to making science fiction a reality.
The potential applications of Google Glass in hospitals have not gone unnoticed. This summer, tech giant Qualcomm and Palomar Health launched Glassomics, an idea incubator for the application of Google Glass and other wearable technologies in health care.
Philips Healthcare, in a partnership with Accenture called the "Digital Accelerator Lab," is also exploring the applications of Google Glass in hospitals. Philips has already released a proof-of-concept demonstration which shows Google Glass being used to improve the accuracy of surgical procedures, monitor patients' vital signs, and access patients' EHRs over a cloud-based network.
Therefore, wearable tech like Google Glass could be the long-awaited technological boost that doctors across the world have been waiting for.
A Foolish takeaway for the future
The possibilities of wearable tech in personal fitness and health care are vast. The improvements to our lives can already be seen -- people are now more accountable for their own personal fitness, patients with debilitating diseases are enjoying a higher quality of life, and doctors are giddy over the prospects of evolving into cloud-connected doctors of the future.
Over the next 10 years, keep an eye on this space -- wearable tech will soon mean much more than just smart watches.