Consumer Implants - Imagining a World Beyond Wearables

Wearable computing might be tech's latest buzzword today, but implants are next. At the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) companies from a wide range of sectors showcased the latest and greatest wearable gadgets; everything from advanced baby monitoring systems to high-tech mood ring-esque clothing. Intel evenn announced a competition offered up $1.4 million in prize money to developers that bring them the best wearable tech. So, in the typical Silicon Valley fashion of hype-heavy proclamations, the future of tech has officially been announced: Wearable technology shall be the future.

Well, only for the next two years. A recent report done by PFSK, predicts that implantable technology will begin to replace wearables as soon as 2016. It is a logical conclusion, and one that should bear notice by the medical device industry. Many ethical considerations will arise as these implants become more common. Issues surrounding liability and personal risk will be even hotter topics. However, tech savvy countries that foster an implant-friendly attitude will undoubtedly be rewarded with a population that is much more aware, safer, and healthier than those that choose to let this technological opportunity slip into a mire of debates or red tape.
 
Device companies and doctors will need to warm up to the idea of elective implantation of electronic devices, many of which will have non-health related functions. Imagining a consumer receiving an implant that isn’t a life saving device is difficult for many people in the medical device industry, in part due to the fact that an implanted device could rapidly become a life threatening risk if something goes wrong. Implants require special knowledge of biomaterials and careful engineering - meaning the demand for specialized engineering professionals will be increasing soon. Tech companies looking to break into the inevitable consumer implant industry would be wise to partner with the knowledgeable medical device industry. This will be especially true when it comes to things like navigating FDA. The industry is already behind the curve. By my estimation, in order to be market ready by 2016, a subdermal smartwatch would have needed to start the FDA review process in 2006.
 
Looking beyond the world of pacemakers, deep brain stimulators, and inevitable lawsuits, can we envision a world where implanted non-vital tech has mainstreamed? What kind of implants will the consumer of 2016 be interested in? As a member of the DIY implant underground, I feel qualified to shed some light on that topic and offer a few ideas.
 
 
Rich Lee will be discussing "The Weird World of DIY Implants" at MD&M West, Feb. 11. 
 
 
Corrective Technologies
First, health-related implants offer a big opportunity and should be low hanging fruit to those in the medical device industry. Much demand has been demonstrated in corrective technologies. For example, devices that monitor posture and give gentle reminders to straighten posture. Self monitoring devices (pulse and O2 monitors and the like) for a huge range of things will be of interest to the quantified self and fitness crowd as well as professional athletes.
 
Safety
Safety could be a big market. Imagine having a panic button under your skin that could alert various authorities to your location. As a parent, I’d love to have a similar device my kids could use in case they were kidnapped. This is a statistically paranoid idea, but paranoia sells so it could be a good money maker.
 
An ear implant designed to augment sensoy input
Behavior Modification
Behavior correction will be a huge market. Imagine someone with anger issues who is trying to change their incidents of violent episodes. Getting a gentle pulse from an implant as a reminder to calm down could allow that individual to identify initial catalysts of anger before it spirals into rage. There may also be an application for this same kind of biofeedback for those who suffer from depression. Many possibilities exist, and the increased use of simple smartphone apps of a similar nature suggests that consumers are becoming increasingly open to the idea of this sort of technology.
 
Sensory Enhancement
Sensory expansion, enhancement, and augmentation have been my most active implant pursuit. I’ve been experimenting with converting all sorts of sensor data into audio. This makes it possible to experience the world of electromagnetic static in an audio form, or to convert otherwise unheard noises into spatial data. Implants to give people eagle-like vision or enable someone to see the UV spectrum may be novel. Synesthesia of two senses (such as hearing light or tasting sound) can provide a staggering number of combinations in which one could perceive the world, art, and media.
 
Many other implant ideas exist in the DIY communities that just provide simple novel functions. An entomologist friend of mine wants an LED implant to light up his firefly tattoo. A few people are trying to make a haptic compass implant. Another idea is an implant that would alter the sound of someone’s voice. So many ideas have surfaced already that it has become clear that there is no possible way the community could develop them all, so we would certainly welcome the day when these novel implants become common sights in consumer electronics stores.
 
 
Rich Lee is a bodyhacker and futurist focusing on human enhancement and augmentation projects. He has been involved in the underground subculture of biohackers known as Grinders since 2007. He tracks over 130 projects being developed by the community ranging from DIY cybernetic implants to gene therapies.