• The Convergence

Woes and Wares: The Future of Wearable Technology

By Miyuki Leong, Editor


Photo: Unsplash

In March 2020, Singapore was one of the first countries to develop the TraceTogether app, a method of community-driven contact tracing via a mobile app and wearable token.


They rely on proximity-based “Bluetooth signals to record other nearby TraceTogether devices.” [1] This can be attributed to align with the Smart Nation initiative, which is part of the Singapore government’s efforts to integrate digital technologies into Singapore’s infrastructure. [2]


That being said, there has been an increasing public concern about wearable technology and its invasion on privacy and liberties, and thus a resistance to the implementation of TraceTogether altogether. [3]


This issue is no stranger to TraceTogether, since it has been an underlying concern for many consumers in wearable technology. Wearable technology can be defined as any electronic device that can be worn on a person’s body. Methods of such application can range from removable accessories to permanent implants. [4] One classic example of wearable technology would be smartwatches, which allow wearers to connect to their mobile device and access features on mobile apps, as well as track biometric data.


And yet, wearable technology has always been in the forefront of the minds of technology-interested consumers, which goes hand-in-hand with issues of privacy invasion. Especially when health crises become an increasing priority for everyone, people in Singapore are persuaded to trust wearable technologies like TraceTogether to contribute towards the collective goal of mitigating COVID cases and returning life back to a pre-COVID time.

Thus, the debate surrounding TraceTogether made me curious about the current trajectory of wearable technology discourse and its future in Singapore.


To get more insights into the wearable technology space and the current sentiments in the industry, I interviewed Galina Mihaleva, Associate Professor at Nanyang Technological University. Her focus of research is in Fashion, Textile Design and Wearable Technology, where she explores applications of fashion as a form of textile interface for technology. She currently works with MIT Media Lab, the world’s leading research group in ‘wearable computing’ to develop the future of fashion in the age of information.


Galina’s research is motivated by her quest to integrate sustainable materials and traditional textile techniques into today’s context, in order to create art installations for various exhibitions or to solve problems that she encounters in her professional and personal life.


There are various applications of wearable technology, and Galina’s projects are a good selection that exemplify increasing trends in wearable tech.


Assistive Technology and Health Technology


The future of wearable technology may be firmly situated within the government’s interests, especially when it comes to the healthcare industry in Singapore. [5] Also known as Smart Healthcare, the Singapore government has shown a growing interest in digital technologies like telehealth and assistive technology as a means to enhance the livelihood of vulnerable sectors of the population, such as the elderly and people with debilitating conditions. [6] Examples include the steps tracker as part of the National Steps Challenge and contact tracing for locating lost elderly. [7]


One project Galina is currently working on is a device that aims to rehabilitate stroke patients to recover motor dexterity over their hands. She talks about how she wanted to find ways to enhance the traditional method of stroke recovery like various therapeutic ball exercises, after knowing someone personally who had gone through the process. [8]


She also realised that currently in Singapore, there are very few rehabilitation centres in Singapore for patients to go to. Thus she wanted to find a solution that allows patients to undergo hand physiotherapy at home.


She researched current techniques, collecting knowledge on neuroplasticity and rehabilitation, and found a potential solution to help. To enhance the traditional method of hand therapy ball exercises, her prototype is intended to recontextualise the recovery process into an unassuming narrative for patients in order to make them feel comfortable.


Combined with the external body sensors and VR goggles, the patient will be placed in a setting where they are making lemonade for other people and thus would need to squeeze lemons to do so. It does this by having a VR set that can emit scents like lemon and bergamot to help relax patients when undergoing potentially painful hand exercises. [9]


She hopes that the device could be used by stroke patients in Singapore, as a means to make the rehabilitation process more comfortable for the patients.


Wearable Technology as Social Commentary


With the interdisciplinary nature of the field - combining fashion and technology - wearable technology has the added advantage of becoming an art form, and thus encompasses a potential to provide commentary on various social issues.


As Galina gave me a tour around her various dresses, she talked about the messages they communicate. One of them is called VR Tranquilitie, a visualisation of the negative long-term effects of noise pollution. [10] On the tail of the dress, there are lights that reflect the real-time average decibel data from SmartCitizen sensors in urban cities like London, Singapore, Guanacaste, Los Angeles and Seoul.


The dress is accompanied with a Samsung VR set that shows video footage of the various skylines. If the cities experienced relatively high levels of noise pollution, the spectator will see blinding red lights that simulate the stresses that come with long-term noise pollution. [11]


Photo: Diego González

In addition, Galina talks passionately about her students and their final year projects (FYPs), which aimed to meld technology into wearable designs with the goal of commentary on local cultural issues. It is clear from the tour around the various FYPs that the possibilities are endless when it comes to how wearable technology can be a tool to raise awareness.


She then went on to explain about the beauty of working in the wearable technology domain - it is an interdisciplinary area that combines engineering, design and programming, which often leads to unique ventures that have the potential to solve problems.


Her work also highlights the importance of good design and aesthetic, as good wearable technology must be ergonomical and have an intuitive design that is both functional and pleasing to the eye.


Issues with Wearable Technology


Despite all the great potential for the various applications of wearable technology, it also comes with risks and issues.


Galina mentions how one of the prevailing issues in wearable technology today is their practicality. Despite technological advances to downsize and streamline circuits and arduinos, there is still a lingering issue of long-lasting power sources without constant recharging, which serves as the foundation to support experimental wearable tech. In addition, these sources need to be as compact as possible to attach to various wearable tech.


As aforementioned at the start of this article, issues of privacy are also at the forefront of people’s minds where wearable technology is concerned. Galina talks about the growing influence on technology that is increasingly integrated into our society.


For instance, as TraceTogether is a tracking and surveillance tool, perceptions on the issue of privacy with regards to its use differ from individual to individual: it can be viewed as a highly intrusive tool or one that helps protect the safety of Singapore society at large. However, it seems that the government’s rationale for implementing TraceTogether draws upon the latter of the two views.


One strategy in which the government attempts to handle issues of privacy is to equate surveillance via TraceTogether to what people have already willingly subjected themselves to by downloading other apps. [2] As Mr. K. Shanmugam has stated, “there’s nothing that any app like this will find that technology platforms don't already know about you.” [12]


In addition, these tactics to normalise digital means of surveillance are part of ongoing efforts towards integrating the Smart Nation initiative into citizens’ lives, as “Singapore stakes more of its economic future on technological competence and superiority.” [2]


Conclusion


Using her foundational knowledge on textiles and technology, Galina aims to find solutions to problems she faces in her daily and personal life, as well as create works of art that challenge and address societal issues.


She hopes that people will become more open minded about the wonders and benefits of wearable technology, as she thinks that such technology holds a lot of potential - wearable technology’s versatility allows for significant experimentation to create new solutions and products in the consumer and research space.


Ultimately, the future of wearable technology seems promising, and its success lies in its interdisciplinary nature, where people with varying expertise are able to collaborate together for better outcomes.


As a society, we must learn and grow our knowledge together, by building on each other and sharing ideas. So long as this collaboration continues, the possibilities to solve today’s challenges will be endless.




Bibliography:


[1] https://support.tracetogether.gov.sg/hc/en-sg


[2] https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1329878x20949545


[3] https://www.change.org/p/singapore-government-singapore-says-no-to-wearable-devices-for-covid-19-contact-tracing


[4] https://www.investopedia.com/terms/w/wearable-technology.asp


[5] https://opengovasia.com/technology-and-innovation-in-healthcare-support-singapores-vision-of-a-smart-nation/


[6] https://www.smartnation.gov.sg/what-is-smart-nation/initiatives/Health


[7] https://www.straitstimes.com/tech/tech-news/contest-to-design-device-to-better-detect-wearers-location


[8] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/282288530_Ball-squeezing_among_stroke_patients_A_common_problem


[9] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25824404/


[10] https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/features/noise-pollution-cause-diabetes-obesity-heart-attack-health-impact-science-a8599631.html


[11] https://medium.com/samsung-internet-dev/look-forward-fashion-tech-b47a946ebcd1


[12] https://www.straitstimes.com/world/united-states/contact-tracing-apps-key-to-country-opening-up-again-shanmugam




Miyuki is a Year 3 sociology and communications major, and an Editor for The Convergence. She is interested in global politics, more specifically issues concerning development and sustainability of countries, from socio-economic, political and environmental perspectives. She hopes that her articles create interest and bring a new angle to life in Singapore in the minds of her fellow university students. She is an avid consumer of murder mysteries, British comedy, traveling and experimental cooking. She likes snuggling with her dog while watching 90 Day Fiancé. Youthful, spunky and lots of fun, this reporter has a nose for news and a taste for tea. And if that tea has bubbles, it makes it even better.