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Forget tracking steps, these wearables are changing lives
Fri, 22nd Jan 2016
FYI, this story is more than a year old

Wearables have become synonymous with health and fitness, with an abundance of activity trackers lining the shelves, accompanied by the occasional smartwatch.

The wrist has become prime real estate for technology you can wear, while the rest of the human body appears to have gone unnoticed.

I don't mean to sound flippant – many people far cleverer than myself are making things that I can't even begin to comprehend. And sure, there's something to be said for the fact that trackers and smartwatches can help you up your health game.

Even so, it seems a whole heap of tech giants have turned their efforts to making what is essentially the same fitness accessory in every iteration you can imagine.

Some companies, however, are moving away from the well-worn fitness tracker path and taking wearable technology to a whole new level.

Although by no means a definitive list, here's a taste of some life changing technologies:

No big deal, just helping the blind to see

Horus Technology is an Italian startup that develops wearables which combine technologies taken from robots, healthcare and augmented reality to enhance the lives of the blind and visually impaired.

The company is currently engineering a wearable device that will essentially be a personal assistant, helping the blind to complete everyday tasks.

The device's main features are text reading, navigation assistance (e.g., obstacle detection and pedestrian crossing) and facial and object recognition.

The wearable device exploits state of the art sensors and algorithms, AKA robotics and artificial intelligence, to translate visual information into audible signals that the user can hear through bone conduction speakers. It's currently patent pending.

This month, Horus received a US$900,000 (NZ$1,380,050) investment from 5Lion Holdings, an American diversified holding company.

Horus says it will invest more than 80% of the money raised into research and development, with the goal of bringing its main product to the market later this year.

Didn't you hear? Inflatable clothing is all the rage

At CES this year, French company In-Motion debuted its Ski Airbag Vest, a device that's essentially a wearable airbag designed to prevent skiing injuries.

Using similar technology to that found in smart wristbands, the vest is made with sensors to detect when someone loses their balance and is about to land in a way that could inflict damage.

The device will inflate to protect the user's chest, abdomen and spine, while two L-shaped straps extend to protect hips against further injuries.

It's designed to be reusable after inflation, and is black and slim - similar to a flak jacket - so it can sit under regular skiing gear.

Currently in testing with professional skiers, the vest is expected to be released July of this year and will reportedly cost upwards of $1,200.

In-Motion says the product has been approved by the French Sky Federation and is being used by 40 ski cross athletes.

Part human, part robot, fully functional

The Hybrid Assistive Limb, otherwise known as HAL, is the world's first powered exoskeleton suit designed by Japan's Tsukuba University and robotics company Cyberdyne.

The wearable was designed to help a physically challenged person move more freely, and enable them to exert bigger motor skills and energy than usual.

When humans move their body, the brain sends signals to muscles via the motor neurons, moving the musculoskeltal system.

HAL picks up on small biosignals on the surface of the skin, and reinforces muscle power accordingly.

Using simple interfaces, users can alter settings, manually input operations and more. It's also adjustable for all body sizes and types.

HAL has been designed to help those with disabilities as well as elderly people, but can also support workers with physically demanding jobs such as disaster rescue or construction.

This year, Toko's Haneda Airport began using HAL to help employees lift heavy objects with less effort, and at the end of last year, Japan's health ministry approved the sale of HAL to medical facilities. This makes HAL the first wearable medical robot approved for sale in the country.

Some would say this wearable is very handy

Open Bionics, the Bristol based company specialising in low-cost, light-weight, underactuated robot hands and prosthetic devices, is bringing prosthetics into the modern world.

More recently, the company started its Open Hand wearable project.

The hand itself utilises steel cables for tendons, electric motors for muscles, and 3D printed parts that act as skin and bone.

However, all of the hand parts are 3D printed using ABS endurable plastic, as opposed to metals such as titanium. This reduces the price of a prosthetic hand drastically, according to the company.

On top of this, the company says one of its main goals is to make the hand entirely open source so it's the general public can, in theory, print the wearable on a 3D printer.

The company says they hope to get their hands fully developed with medical testing and FDA approval.

Can you ‘feel' sound? Yes, apparently

A team of engineers at Rice University and Baylor College of Medicine in Texas are developing a vest that will allow deaf people to ‘feel' and understand speech.

David Eagleman, neuroscientist and author, is leading the team as they create a low-cost vest that collects sounds from a mobile app and converts them into vibrations that a user can feel on their torso.

The vest has dozens of embedded actuators, or motors, that vibrate in a specific pattern to represent words.

It uses a phone or tablet that isolates speech from a wall of sound.

The actuators vibrate in a complicated pattern that can't be translated consciously, but with training, deaf people adapt to the ‘translation' process, according to Eagleman.

He says test subjects, some of them deaf from birth, ‘listened' to spoken words and wrote them on a white board, in effect understanding the language of the vest.

According to the team, as people use the vest more, they get feedback about what they're ‘hearing' and start to memorise patterns, eventually able to identify words they've never encountered before.

The first Vest prototype put together by the team included 24 actuators, while the second version, which is currently in production, includes 40.

Along with the actuators, the vest includes a controller board and two batteries.