The medical field has been using implants for decades, but unless you have a serious health issue, you probably wouldn’t consider wearable technology implanted in your body. Wearables seem easier to accept as long as we carry them around or even wear them in direct contact with our skin – like smart patches and electronic tattoos. But for most of us, our skin is the natural barrier and the mere thought of implanting wearables under it makes us uncomfortable. Nevertheless, the medical industry is making rapid progress in developing new types of implants and a growing number of technology enthusiasts e.g. from the cyborg community are exploring new applications, questioning the conventional ideas of what it means to be human. Whereas medical implants aim to restore the body by regulating dysfunctional systems, the pioneers of a new class of implants want to use technology to enhance our experience of being human. Even if the two areas seem to be separate, there is a certain overlap and the progress in both, the medical and the hacker field could soon lead to a much wider adaptation.
Wearable Implants in the Medical Sector
With hundreds of thousands of surgeries each year, pacemakers are the most common technical implant in the medical field. For patients whose hearts beat too slowly, pacemakers are the life insurance that maintain an adequate heart–rate. Implants combining pacemakers with a defibrillator not only assure a steady heartbeat, they can also help prevent sudden cardiac arrest. Aside from the heart, pacemaker implants are now also being used to regulate neurons in dysfunctional brain regions. This so-called deep brain stimulation is mostly used to help patients suffering from epilepsy and Parkinsons’s Disease improve their motor abilities. Current research is also investigating brain implants for other applications such as help treating depression.
For people who are deaf or severely hearing impaired due to damaged sensory hair cells, cochlear implants have been in use for several decades. Unlike regular hearing aids that only amplify sounds, the cochlea implant totally bypasses the mechanical hearing organ and connects directly to the hearing nerve. Even if the auditory perception gained with cochlear implants cannot completely compensate natural hearing, to people who were previously deaf, restoring hearing capabilities is life-changing. Due to its more complex nature, restoring sight is more difficult, but according implants are nevertheless in the making. Argus 2, the first bionic eye which has been approved by the FDA contains of a pair of glasses with built-in cameras and sends its signal directly to the seeing nerve.
Even if we don’t have serious health issues and our senses work just fine, implants might soon be available to enhance our daily lives. A new kind of medical implant is designed not to replace the functionality of the human body but to monitor it, thus helping reduce the risk of malfunction. Patients at risk of cardiovascular diseases can have ECG monitors implanted right under their skin for long-term observation. The data is transmitted each night to a wireless station at home and from there is forwarded to doctors who observe developing trends to hopefully predict and adequately respond to heart failure. Given these new preventive fields of application, the adoption of implants might soon be on the rise. According to a study by the research institute Bitkom, 31% of the Germans 65 years and older are open to receiving an implant if it helps them manage their chronic diseases such as high blood pressure.
Are Wearable Implants Going Mainstream?
Biohackers and technology enthusiasts are working on implantable solutions for whole new fields of application to ensure their say in what they think could be the future of mankind. Inspired by transhumanist ideas, people from the cyborg movement are experimenting with sensory enhancement by implanting magnets into their fingertip which allow the cyborg users to feel electromagnetic fields. This low-tech implant can not only enable a whole new dimension of perception, it can also be used for neat tricks like switching your MacBook on and off with your finger by simulating the magnetic field that occurs when the notebook lid is closed. Stefan Grainer, a friend of mine and co-founder of the Berlin Cyborg society, is currently developing a ring that conducts energy to his implanted magnet so he can use his finger as a speaker simply by putting it to his ear.
For people wearing medical implants, it seems like a simple step to begin experimenting with their technically restored body functions. If you already wear a cochlear implant, why stick to the limitations of human hearing when you can try to extend it to frequencies normally only heard by bats or dogs? Or if your sight already relies on an electronic system that communicates with your body, why not include the infrared spectrum and treat yourself to night vision? Improving our senses can help improve our orientation and opens up completely new dimensions of perception. How about getting an implanted compass that lets you feel where north is, just like birds with their magnetic sense?
On the other hand, modifying our perception and transforming the way we experience life might go too far for mainstream users. Instead, the holy grail for wearable implants could be changing actions and interactions in our everyday life. A tiny NFC chip implanted in your hand could easily become the new gatekeeper that lets you access your house, car and smartphone, making it easier for you to authenticate yourself in a world of connected objects. While in 2014, most objects are not connected yet, the chip is already available. All it takes is $39 and a trained body modifier who can help you get it under your skin. What isn’t on the market yet is the concept of an audio tooth implant which the artist Auger Loizeau presented back in 2001. While he originally used the project to provoke discussions over a decade ago, the idea of an audio-dental implant that works both as a microphone and a speaker could have a comeback in our hyper-connected world today.
Since we are still waiting for the iWatch and the iImplant hasn’t even been announced, you would either have to be a patient or a hacker with a strong drive to overstep boundaries to really want to enhance your body with technology. Having one implant for a single application reminds us of the state of wearables, where simple devices such as activity trackers are merging into new computer platforms, like smartwatches. Maybe it will take a few years or even a few decades, but once implants become a computer platform, in-body enhancement might finally gain momentum. How about an implantable chip that lets you access and stay in touch with the world around you, that monitors your vitals and lets you customize yourself with app installs? Once such implants have proven to be safe and to deliver significant value to our everyday lives, becoming a cyborg might be not such a bad idea after all.
To learn more about the topic, come see us at the Wearable Technologies show at the world medical forum MEDICA, where we are going to cover implants from the medical industry. For further information about the [email protected] taking place in November 2014, have a look at the event page.
Images: Reveal, Wikimedia, Auger Loizeau