Where phone meets body
23rd Oct 2013 | 15:13
The biometric tech of the future is closer than you think
Apple's decision to include a fingerprint scanner in the new iPhone 5S may or may not have convinced you to buy one, but it marks another step forward in biometrics and the fusion of phone and user.
It's not beyond the realms of possibility that the next decade could see advances that feel like they're straight out of the pages of a sci-fi novel.
Imagine taking a hands-free call without a headset, for example. Or feeling your temple buzz when you enter an open Wi-Fi zone. Or swallowing a pill that can report your body temperature and health back to a dedicated phone app.
This sort of tech is not a distant pipe dream: it's being developed right now, and could be in mainstream use more quickly than you might think.
Pills and implants
It's going to take some time before we're happy to have electronic chips embedded into our wrists or jaws, and much of the sensory tech currently in development is in a more natural form.
The CorTemp pill from HQInc is powered by a tiny built-in battery and can measure your temperature, heart rate and other data. The pill reports back wirelessly to another device (such as your phone). It can be used to help spot health problems and check on the effectiveness of medicine in the same way that Windows reports back on the health of your hard drive.
HQInc's Lee Carbonelli explains: "Sensor innovations can be used as diagnostic tools, as well as in wellness and prevention, and apps will play a prominent role in data recording and for transmission of data to medical professionals."
You may balk at the idea of popping a super-smart pill that reports back to your doctor, but as Google's Eric Schmidt said in 2012: "If it makes the difference between health and death, you're going to want this thing."
Grindhouse Wetware is another outfit that devotes itself to biohacking in a variety of forms. One of the projects it's working on is Circadia, a small implantable circuit board that measures your vital statistics and reports back wirelessly.
Via its integrated LED lights you can glance at your arm to check for notifications from your Android phone. "Circadia has a Bluetooth module that takes your biological data and uploads it to your phone," Grindhouse's Tim Cannon told us. "You can also make the device sing 'peanut butter jelly time' to your phone, and the LED on the device blinks rapidly as it does that!"
The usefulness and application of the collected data is just as just as important as the devices themselves.
"I think in the next 10-20 years we will be using the data we are collecting now to make more intelligent choices about our lives," says Tim, "and we'll be replacing pieces of our bio that are unnecessary or undesirable (arms, hearts, etcetera). We will hopefully be having a conversation about life and life extension and what the ramifications are culturally."
Devices like Google Glass have brought notifications, search results and driving directions closer to our eyeballs than ever before, but through the power of bone conduction you can have calls or notifications beamed straight into your head, no Bluetooth headset required.
- Read our hands on Google Glass review
The technology has already been trialled in Germany, where commuters resting their heads against a train window were treated to targeted advertising. Passengers were "surprised" and "enjoyed this new form of advertising", if you take the word of the agency who carried out the experiment. Your mileage may vary.
In recent weeks we've also seen a team from Disney Research pass audio messages through the touch of a finger.
This tech uses low electrical pulses rather than bone conduction, but the implications are the same: you may soon be able to take calls, listen to podcasts and hear alerts while your phone stays in your pocket, with no headphones required.
Apple's Touch ID has grabbed most of the headlines over the past few weeks, and security is another area where our bodies will almost certainly be playing a larger role in the future.
We've already seen some possibilities bounced around various tech conferences — Motorola's Regina Dugan floated the idea of pills or an electronic tattoo as authentication methods at the Wall Street Journal's D11 conference this year. Essentially, you become the password.
It's not all pie-in-the-sky, either: MC10's Biostamp tattoo is built from stretchable silicon and contains very small circuits and antennae that can be used to prove you are who you say you are. Don't be surprised if you see it appearing alongside the iPhone 7 or Nexus 8 — one day, your phone will respond to your touch and your voice alone.
In the near term at least, it seems that smart body monitors are the most realistic next step, building on the fitness tracker wristbands of today to help us learn more and more about our sleep, diet and general health.
Dave Asprey is one of the pioneers of the fledgling trend of biohacking - author, entrepreneur, investor and currently employed at Trend Micro, Asprey has spent more than a decade using body monitors and training devices to improve his diet, IQ and lifestyle.
He told TechRadar he thinks the data from the next wave of biosensors will open up countless opportunities: "The insight we glean from this new use of big data will teach us more about what it means to be human than we've ever known before.
"Hidden in the everyday biological and sociological behaviours of people, are the keys to unlocking the complex interaction between the environment and ourselves. In order to know what small changes to make, we must get the data. And then, we must use it wisely. That is the new frontier of biohacking."
You might think Google and Apple know a lot about you now, but it won't be long before our phones are monitoring us and offering feedback in even more intimate ways. Other innovations are still some distance off: while it would be useful to capture every great moment we see automatically, for now you'll have to make do with a lifelogger device such as Memento.
Unless, that is, you have a space for a prosthetic eye, in which case check out the work the Eyeborg Project team are doing. However these phone+body technologies pan out, the gap between them will get smaller and smaller.