In some parts of the world, like my living room, the smartphone might look like an addictive time-waster that cuts into homework, sleep, and physical activity. At CES 2016, the consumer tech show that wraps up today in Las Vegas, it’s being transformed into a device that promises to make you faster, stronger, leaner, smarter, safer, better rested, less haggard, emotionally centered, or more likely to face the day with a full head of hair.
At least that’s the hope. With billions of devices now equipped with sensors that allow them to connect to the Internet, otherwise mundane objects like chairs, spoons, shoes, sweatbands and blenders can suddenly communicate data that makes them look pretty smart. At CES, there are chairs that track how you sit, spoons that can make a cartoon face smile, shoes that adjust their temperature to the state of your foot, headbands that use biometric data to serve up music that will help you sleep, and a blender that calculates nutrition while suggesting ways to improve on the smoothie you made. That doesn’t include a seemingly endless stream of wrist bands and other wearables that interpret your steps, jumps, heart rate, food intake, blood pressure, temperature, sleep habits and mood.
Trying out all these gadgets can make for an evening of good fun at CES. But like a trivia game that tests you on which child of Ringo Starr once played with The Who (Zak Starkey), what you learn is not necessarily critical to living a healthy life. Most of us don’t need a $200 wristband to tell us when we’re overindulging or not getting enough sleep. Many consumers might hold off on trading in their dumb stuff for smarter versions until performance is improved and price points come down. Even useful innovations like TempTraq Connect, a patch that lets you monitor temperature remotely from a mobile device, isn’t likely to displace the humble thermometer at a cost of $24.95 per use.
Still, a growing number of medical professionals and researchers come to CES for a glimpse of healthcare’s future. Dr. Nick van Terheyden, the chief medical officer of Dell, made his first visit to CES last year and now looks set to make an annual pilgrimage. “I lay an awful lot of stock in this,” he says while standing on the floor of the Eureka Hall. For van Terheyden, walking around the exhibit halls offers insight into the next generation of tools, the changing role of the physician, and new ways to empower patients in managing in their own care. With 2.4 million square feet of exhibition space, it also happens to be good exercise.
The most valuable technologies are not always the most sophisticated. One device that impressed van Terheyden: a spoon equipped with simple technology that allows it to remain stable in a shaky hand. “That could allow patients with Parkinson’s Disease to feed themselves.” Another intriguing innovation he found is a spectroscope that connects to your smartphone and can identify if the drug that you’re buying is a fake. That addresses a real problem, especially in emerging markets.
One way to filter potentially transformative tech from the toys is the time its owners spend with regulatory bodies like the Food and Drug Administration. Tech entrepreneurs like 23andMe’s Anne Wojcicki and Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes know all too well the hurdles that FDA officials can mount if a product isn’t sufficiently vetted. 23andMe had to take a two-year break from giving consumers health reports on DNA culled from their saliva, only recently getting permission to resume. Theranos’ transformative blood test, meanwhile, is currently under scrutiny. That’s why Ranndy Kellogg, chief operating officer of Omron Healthcare in Lake Forest, Illinois, sought FDA approval when squeezing an inflatable blood pressure monitor into a watch. “We spend much more time with regulators and healthcare professionals than the people here,” says Omron. “It’s important to be here to let people see the technology we have.”
For researchers like Jixing Yao (PhD), Senior DSP Engineer at AUM Cardiovascular in Northfields, MN, the value of CES extends well beyond the consumer. Among other things, Yao came to CES for the Cybersecurity Forum to understand new ways to protect against hacks. “For a medical device company, protecting security is a big deal,” says Yao, adding that his company is nearing the final stages of FDA approval of a hand-held device that displaces more expensive tests to detect blockage. “It’s not just about selling your own technology. You need to know what is out there to protect it.”
Still, the most critical player in healthcare remains the person whose health is being treated. And that person increasingly carries a smartphone that could become a powerful medical tool. Belgian entrepreneur Jacques Kinsbergen, CEO of Jacoti (above), has spent the past few years working to convert it for use as an auditory test and hearing aid that can operate through Apple earbuds.
With eight international patents, granted or pending, as well as CE certification, and an innovation award from CES, Kinsbergen proves the smartphone can be much more than a toy. In the meantime, one of the best ways to boost health is to put it away.
Diane Brady (who also took these photos) is a New York-based business journalist, author, media strategist and CEO of dB Omnimedia.