Wearables gradually move beyond the wrist, and into hearts and minds (literally)

Justin Solomon | CNBC

Can a device originally conceived to track vital signs and boost physical fitness also delve deeply into other areas of the human anatomy — like the brain and heart?

To a growing number of experts and companies in the sector, the answer is yes.

As Euromonitor International projects total sales of U.S. wearables will top $13 billion by 2021, the future of the devices appears to be growing rosier for those who cater to niches of the market — or build on functions offered by other gadgets.

"Wearables may be the devices of the future," Euromonitor consumer electronics researcher Loo Wee Teck wrote recently. "But consumers seem most keen on functionality that currently exists on other devices."

Teck told CNBC that consumers value small and slim wearables, a challenging feat to achieve with an all-in-one device using today's technology. Yet he said "hyperspecialization" could help promote the next generation of wearables, with added benefits. "If you can do a specific niche wearable, you should be able to extend the battery life," Teck said.

By using wearable technology, we can maybe prevent chronic diseases to start, or when they start we can assist in the management of the disease.
Bernard Grundlehner
system architect, Imec
Source: IMEC

One of the companies hoping to catch the wave is start-up BrainCo, which is adhering to a one-function wearable philosophy. The company expects that in the future, consumers will be willing to wear their emotions on their heads rather than sleeves.

BrainCo's signature product is a headband that measures concentration levels by monitoring brainwaves, aiming to give wearers more control over their brain power. Its Focus 1 headband — BrainCo's first consumer product that had a rocky debut at the 2016 CES conference — will officially be available to consumers next year.

The rough first outing hasn't prevented the company from raising boatloads of money, however: A few weeks ago, BrainCo announced it had obtained $5.5 million in venture capital funding.

Recently, the company demonstrated a prototype of the technology for CNBC, which measures electroencephalograms (EEG) through a series of electrodes. Founder Bicheng Han hopes to use the technology to alleviate symptoms of ADHD and aid concentration in classrooms.

However, BrainCo's premise is more than just wishful thinking. Aniruddha Das, an associate professor at Columbia University's Department of Neuroscience, told CNBC recently that it is possible to use brainwaves as a crude approximation of concentration.

Wearable health patch
Source: IMEC

Other companies are also seeking to capitalize on highly specialized niches in medicine. Belgium-based Imec, an electronics research firm, is working on a wearable that measures breathing, heart rate and other activities.

Imec's prototype, so new it doesn't even have a name, consists of a thin adhesive strip with a dizzying array of sensors and electrodes that attaches to the torso. The device is designed for use as needed, like patients requiring monitoring at home, and not for daily wear.

"The function is measuring the cardiorespiratory system," said Bernard Grundlehner, a system architect for Imec who oversees the company's efforts in wearables. "And it is a system, right, so the heart and the lungs they do not work in solitary, they work together in the body."

The company aims to license the technology and designs out to consumer-facing companies, most likely in the specialist medical field. Like BrainCo, Grundlehner hopes the technology will make it easier for doctors to detect illnesses and problems early.

Although Imec's device isn't technically meant for everyday use, Grundlehner agreed that wearables "may become more application specific. And depending on the application needs, it may measure just ECG, or it may measure a whole bunch of other things, really depending on the needs of the application."

He added: "By using wearable technology, we can maybe prevent chronic diseases to start, or when they start we can assist in the management of the disease," ultimately reducing health-care costs.

Yet new trends suggest future wearables may be more specialized than ever before — meaning consumers may be a few years away from wearing their doctor, psychiatrist or yoga instructor.

For the current crop of devices, Euromonitor's Teck told CNBC fashion companies might drive future consumer-grade wearables because they "are much more focused at segmenting the market," delivering a targeted, specific device catering to one need.