The pacemaker was just the beginning. Some of the most forward-thinking minds in science, medicine and technology are taking the integration of high-tech and human body further than ever. Much further.
CNBC.com presents a look at up-and-coming devices that can be worn on the body or even implanted. These "body hacks" can provide doctors with vital patient information, give their users extrasensory perception and even help people overcome their disabilities permanently.
By Daniel Bukszpan
Posted 18 Sept. 2013
From refrigerators to freight trains, CNBC's "Rise of the Machines" shows you how a new generation of connected machines can now speak to us, and each other. "Rise of the Machines" premieres Wednesday, Sept. 18 at 9 p.m. ET/PT.
MC10 is a company whose mission is to make electronics conform to the human body by fashioning them into ultra-thin, flexible form. These devices bend, stretch and twist with the contours of the body. One example is the biostamp medical tattoo.
MC10 CEO David Icke told a 2012 TedMed Conference in Washington that the device can monitor disease, detect bodily changes or simply keep tabs on a patient's vital signs. The device is still in the research phase, but Icke hopes it can one day be used to detect brain trauma and irregular heartbeats.
Proteus is a company that's working to integrate mobile technology with treatment for chronic illnesses via its Digital Health Feedback System. The system uses ingestible and wearable sensors that work together to gather and communicate patient information.
The ingestible sensor is swallowed along with whatever medications a patient happens to be taking at the time. It's powered by stomach fluids and transmits information about the patient's health to the wearable sensor. That sensor sends the information to the patient's smartphone.
MC10 also makes devices that can be implanted, including a biometric feedback system that gets its information straight from the horse's mouth—right inside the patient.
Previously, implantable devices such as the pacemaker were bulky. This system is feather-light and stretchable, and in the words of the company website, they're "so conformal, the body doesn't know they're there."
Google Glass is a wearable computer that's deep in the development and gossip stages. It features an optical head-mounted display, which is a high-tech way of saying that it's embedded in a pair of eyeglasses, thereby keeping the display perpetually in the wearer's sight until the eyeglasses are removed.
While it's all well and good to wonder about this device's practical considerations, a more pertinent question remains: Will they look fabulous? In February, The New York Times reported that Google was in the midst of negotiations with the vintage-inspired eyeglasses design company Warby Parker, so looking good must be something on Google Glass' radar.
Radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags are used to wirelessly track inventory, livestock and pets. But wouldn't it be cool if you could use the same technology to open a safe or gain access to your panic room? Well, Amal Graafstra, author of the book "RFID Toys: Cool Projects for Home, Office and Entertainment," did precisely that when he had an RFID tag implanted in each one of his hands.
According to Forbes, he uses the implants to do everything, including unlocking his front door and authenticating his smartphone. Those with strong stomachs can watch him perform the implantation procedure on another person in this YouTube video.
Comic book fans are familiar with a phenomenon known as "spider-sense," a tingling feeling that the crime-fighting webslinger Spiderman experiences whenever he's in imminent physical danger. Now, researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago are trying to make this sensory awareness available to people in the real world via SpiderSense, which they describe in the academic study "Sensing the environment through SpiderSense."
"SpiderSense [is] a wearable device that projects the wearer's near environment on the skin and allows for directional awareness of objects around him," the paper says. "The millions of sensory receptors that cover the skin presents opportunities for conveying alerts and messages." In plain English, this means that the user wears a suit covered in sensor modules that scan a 60-foot radius with ultrasound.
According to Slate, SpiderSense is still in a limited testing phase. Currently, it can let the wearer know when an unseen object is closing in by applying pressure to the skin, but it gives constant pressure in close-quarter environments. So it's good for the person in the desert wishing to detect a cactus, but not so good in tight, indoor environments.
The Cyborg Foundation is a nonprofit co-founded by self-styled "cyborg activist" Neil Harbisson. One of its current projects is the "Eyeborg," a cybernetic eye whose first incarnation was produced in 2003 as a combination webcam, wearable computer and headphones. The latest model transmits sound through bone conduction. The ultimate aim is to surgically implant it inside of someone's skull.
The "someone" in question is to be none other than Harbisson, who was born colorblind and hopes that the final incarnation of the Eyeborg will allow him to detect color through sound. According to The Huffington Post, he told participants at a 2012 TED Talk that being able to perceive color via sound had changed the way he perceives food. "Now I can display the food on a plate, so I can eat my favorite song," he said.
The Cyborg Foundation has several other projects in the hopper. There's the Speedborg, an internal radar that clocks speed via vibration; the Fingerborg, a camera mounted on a prosthetic finger, and the 360 Degree Sensory Extension.
That device gives its wearer the closest possible approximation to having eyes in the back of the head. According to the website, the device "extend[s] human perception to 360 degrees by adding sensors" at the back of the wearer's head, and it vibrates whenever someone approaches from behind.
Tired of your low-tech tattoo? You may soon be able to glow in the dark.
Back in 2010, the scientific journal Nature Materials said a new generation of common LEDs had been developed for use in biomedicine. That means that they're safe to implant under your skin, and what's more, they're flexible, so they can be twisted into all kinds of bizarre configurations before being implanted transdermally.
In a Popsci.com article called "Bored By Non-Glowing Skin? Ultra-Flexible, Waterproof LED Implants Are What You Seek," author Alasdair Wilkins suggested numerous applications for this technology. These included twisting one 720 degrees to replicate the look of a double helix, which he said would give scientific conferences "a refreshingly heavy metal feel."
So after the cosmetic implant, how are you going to turn out the lights at night.
All around us, there's a technological revolution underway powered by devices as small as a grain of rice. They are sensors, capable of tracking and recording everything we do. They're in our smartphones, our cars, our appliances, even our bodies, and they're connected to the Internet to share information and make our world smarter. Virtually all products that use electricity—from toasters and coffeemakers to jet engines and MRIs—now have the ability to "talk" to each other, and to us. And, what they have to say is profoundly transforming our lives—the way we travel, treat disease and enjoy our homes.