Forget Google Glass and that Fitbit you used to wear; the ultimate in wearable computing isn't worn on your body, but embedded within it. With chips physically inserted into your body either attached to nerves or placed into muscles or skin, a new form of synergy between human and computer can occur.
How do injected electronics work?
For now, implants are explicitly for the delivery of medical services. "Once the ability to control and communicate with an implanted or injected device is achieved, a number of services can be delivered such as real-time tracking of tumour growth or localised and controlled delivery of drugs," says Vaishali Kamat, head of digital health at Cambridge Consultants, who thinks the future is one of miniaturised, injected implants providing targeted nerve stimulation. This is called neuro-modulation.
Equip the body with any smart physiological monitoring device and the emergency services could be called automatically if someone is about to have a heart attack, for example. "Neuro-stimulation therapy could be delivered in response to an imminent epileptic seizure, or increased Parkinson's tremors," adds Kamat. By going straight to the nerve, it's possible that identifying neural pathways could mean treatment for conditions like depression and obesity.
What medical uses could injectable electronics enable?
The medical uses are potentially huge. "The technology could be used to help recover tissues following a brain injury or help manage diabetes by providing an intelligent solution for controlling insulin levels," says Collette Johnson, Medical Business Development Manager at Plextek Consulting. "Injectable electronics could also provide similar applications in chemical regulation of the brain for people with imbalances, as well as for individuals with growth hormone-related diseases. They could also be used to help control prosthetics by reacting to muscle motion."
In June the Lieber Research Group at Harvard University unveiled an injectable mesh that was able to detect electrical signals within mice brains, which could help scientists unravel how the brain's cells communicate. The mesh was injected through a needle just 0.1mm in diameter.
Could injected electronics be the next wave of wearable tech?
"Yes, technology is fast advancing to a stage where this is possible," says Kamat. "These types of treatments could be made feasible by microelectronics, which can be injected or delivered at desired locations in the body via minimally invasive procedures." For anyone squeamish about having things physically inserted under the skin, Kamat points out that ID tags have been implanted in pets for tracking purposes for years.
What about Bluetooth for the body and control by apps?
"Yes, it is possible to implant wireless transmitters in the body and get a signal to and from them via an external device," says Kamat. "Traditionally this has been achieved via a dedicated external medical device – as has been the case in traditional implants, like pacemakers – but more recently, there has been interest in using a smartphone for this purpose."
Trouble is, that requires implanting a device in the body equipped with some kind of wireless protocol, the most obvious being Bluetooth. "Getting a Bluetooth signal out of the body is not a simple task, given that the body absorbs most of the 2.4GHz signal," says Kamat. "However, we are doing work in this space and have developed some proprietary technology that makes this feasible."