CAMBRIDGE, UK — One day computers embedded in clothes could be monitoring health, according to a report by consultants, Wireless Healthcare. The designs could cut the cost of healthcare, boost textile and IT producers and providing mobile phone companies with a new market for data services.
The report claims that a number of companies have started marketing garments, or “healthware,” which monitor the breathing, temperature and heart rates of athletes and fitness enthusiasts. Healthcare providers have now identified a role for wearable computers in remote patient monitoring. A growing number of wearable computers are being used in telemedicine applications and clinical trials.
Wireless Healthcare says radio frequency identification (RFID) is a potential driver for the healthware market. If retailers insist that RFID, rather than a barcode, is used to identify a product then textile manufacturers will seek to maximise their investment in technology that embeds the device in a garment.
While consumer products, such as miniaturised MP3 players, are likely to be early applications of wearable computing, health and patient monitoring vendors should be able to exploit the falling cost of intelligent garment manufacture and the growth of supporting wireless infrastructure.
Wireless Healthcare believes the wearable computer market will gain further from thermogenerators that turn the body's heat into electrical power so that garments no longer need to accommodate bulky battery packs.
The report suggests that healthcare providers will need to aggregate healthware applications to ensure maximum use of networks and supporting infrastructure. As well, clinicians and IT vendors will need to work together to ensure that products originally intended to monitor athletes can be classified as medical devices.
According to Peter Kruger, a senior analyst with Wireless Healthcare, mobile phone companies are well positioned to exploit the healthware market “Data has to be transported from the patient to a control centre and an 'always on' wireless network, such as 3G, would be ideal for this purpose.” However, he also points out that specially adapted handsets, or PDAs, will be needed to support wearable computing applications.