The age of wearable computing is upon us: There are now wristbands from Nike (NKE), clip-on devices from Fitbit, and eyewear from Google (GOOG). We’ve come this far because we’ve been able to shrink computing power from something the size of a room to a box that sat atop a desk, to a smaller box that fits in the palm of our hand, to now an even smaller box we can wear on our bodies. But they’re still boxes, more or less: Rigid devices that stick out because they don’t conform to the human shape.
A startup in Cambridge, Mass., called MC10 aims to change that. The 70-person company is developing a manufacturing technology that will allow digital circuits to be embedded in fabric or flexible plastic. MC10’s approach means we will no longer “wear” technology like jewelry but have it sit unobtrusively on our skin or inside our bodies. “By embedding technology in bendable, stretchable materials, you can start to think about entirely new form factors for electronics,” says Benjamin Schlatka, a co-founder of MC10.
The BioStamp is MC10’s first flexible computing prototype. It’s a collection of sensors that can be applied to the skin like a Band-Aid or, because it’s even thinner than that, a temporary tattoo. The sensors within collect data such as body temperature, heart rate, brain activity, and exposure to ultraviolet radiation. Using near field communication—a wireless technology that allows devices to share data (think E-ZPass)—the BioStamp can upload its information to a nearby smartphone for analysis.
Besides being unobtrusive, a device such as the BioStamp can be worn constantly (each lasts about two weeks), which changes the nature of medical diagnosis. Until now, understanding what’s happening inside a body only happens when that body is being actively examined. Implantable sensors can provide full-time monitoring. “You want it to be happening in the background, without thinking about it,” says MC10 Chief Executive Officer David Icke, who worked in the chip and cleantech industries before joining MC10 just over four years ago. “The idea behind continuous pickup of information is you get access to health care when you need it.”
This kind of constant monitoring fuels sci-fi visions of the future, when an ambulance may pull up next to you because the implanted sensors in your body are picking up the earliest indications of a heart attack. The BioStamp is expected to cost less than $10 per unit, and MC10 aims to have a commercial product in the next five years.
MC10 is developing another device that will be available sooner. The Checklight measures velocity and impact to help diagnose concussions in sports. Although not flexible, it’s quite small (about the size of a camera’s memory card) and can be tucked into a skullcap and worn under any type of helmet. Checklight was developed with Reebok (ADS:GR), who will begin marketing it later this year. “A lot of the products we try to create are transparent in their use but apparent in their effectiveness,” says Paul Litchfield, Reebok’s vice president for advanced products. “If you take these hard, plastic pieces and make them work organically with the human body, the sky’s the limit as to what they can do.”
As it has with Reebok, MC10 plans to license its technology to third parties that have the scale and expertise to bring products to market. “We think of ourselves as a latter-day Intel (INTC),” says Icke. “We want to power the next generation of wearable electronics, no matter where they come from.”
Another version of the technology in the BioStamp is used in a catheter being developed with Medtronic (MDT), a maker of medical devices that’s an investor in MC10. The catheter can be inserted through a vein in the leg and run up into a patient’s heart, inflated like a balloon to expose its sensor-laden surface, and then used to collect electrical data about the heart’s rhythm, which can be useful to electrophysiologists when diagnosing rare occurrences of tachycardia. Tests on humans are expected to start within a year. “Today’s catheters don’t have the kind of electronics that we take for granted in many of our consumer devices,” says Schlatka. “By adding that intelligence, doctors can make better decisions about how they are performing the procedure.”
The applications go beyond health care. At AllThingsD.com’s D11 tech conference last month, Regina Dugan, senior vice president for advanced technology and products at Motorola Mobility (GOOG), demonstrated how MC10’s BioStamp could be used to verify a person’s identity to a computer or mobile device. Users now rely on key chain fobs or credit-card-size displays that authenticate a user’s access. But wearing a flexible microprocessor that contains an encrypted code could put that function directly on your skin. “Electronics are boxy and rigid,” says Dugan. “Humans are curvy and soft.”