Most wearables are focused on feeding off of self obsession: How many miles you ran in a day, how much stress you’re feeling, how many hours you slept last night. And while there’s obvious value in tracking personal health, it’s a tiny part of what the technology can ultimately do–especially in places where people earn less than $2 a day and aren’t thinking about buying the latest variation on a Fitbit.
“In the Bay Area, we’re pretty myopic about what wearables mean right now,” says Denise Gershbein, executive creative director at the design firm Frog. “A lot of folks are just chasing the idea of creating the next Fuelband and selling something big and then getting out.” Frog, by contrast, is working with organizations like UNICEF on finding opportunities to use wearables for social good.
Part of the process includes redefining what a “wearable” is. It doesn’t even have to include electronics, the designers argue–it just literally has to be something that someone wears to solve a problem.
UNICEF, for example, uses a simple armband to measure child nutrition in the developing world. If the paper measuring tape reaches into the correct color zone, a health worker knows the child is getting enough to eat. There’s no app involved.
Embrace, a tiny sleeping bag-like device for premature infants, is another low-tech example. In hospitals that can’t afford incubators, or that don’t have electricity, the warming device can keep babies alive using a simple design.
Of course, in both cases, a little added technology could potentially be useful–the armband could possibly send measurements to a digital database for better tracking, or a temperature monitor inside the infant warmer could allow doctors to monitor a baby remotely. It’s a question of finding the right balance of technology for any particular situation.
“We think about wearables being super technology oriented, and all about being worn on the wrist,” Gershbein says. “But I think it’s up to all of us to look at analog versions and digital versions. For social impact, it’s how do you have the best of both.”
Most wearables designed for social good do rely on more digital technology. Remedy, for example, is a Google Glass app that lets doctors in remote locations stream video to a major medical center. During a surgery or consultation, a more experienced doctor can offer real-time advice.
Other devices could be used to track patients in rural, hard-to-reach areas. A pregnant woman who might not otherwise have access to regular checkups, for example, could wear a device to monitor her vital signs or nutrition and send the data to a doctor or nurse in a city hundreds of miles away.
In the current Ebola crisis, some designers have suggested that low-cost wearables could be used to monitor patients remotely much of the time, so health care workers are at less risk of getting sick themselves. Another device could continuously monitor body temperature in healthy people to see track who might be ill.
Wearables can also enable remote, low-cost diagnosis, like Emotiv, a brain-reading headset that can help diagnose neurological diseases (for consumers with more money, it can also be used to help tame stress).
Wearable devices are also playing a growing role in keeping people safe. Smart bracelets like the Civil Rights Defender can trigger an alarm when an aid worker is in trouble. Several wearables are designed to protect women from attack, like Fearless, a device designed in India. Clip Fearless to a bra, and it claims to automatically detect if you’re being attacked and send your GPS coordinates to friends or the police. This jewelry can trigger a fake phone call in case of date rape.
But despite the increasing number of wearables created for good, designers like Gershbein are convinced that we’re only beginning to scratch the surface.
“We really should be looking beyond the walls of the Valley out to other use cases, whether it’s across the U.S. or across the world,” she says. “I think we also should be getting designers, researchers, anthropologists, and social impact folks all together to share use cases.”
“Right now startups sit in their rooms and design in a vacuum, and people like UNICEF are out in the field doing things, and they don’t often get to meet each other, and see what technologies we have and what use case that might address,” she says. “Personally I don’t want to see just another Apple watch on the market.”