Last June, Russian engineer Vlad Zaitsev made the headlines after he inserted the chip from his travel card under his skin to avoid the trials of losing an expensive season ticket. The Daily Express called him ‘the human wallet’, while other news outlets dubbed him ‘the human Oyster card’, marvelling at his tenacity in regards to technological advancement.
But though the world appeared shocked at Zaitsev’s initiative, in a world where your watch can call your friends and it is possible to pay for items simply by tapping a phone against a reader, implanting chips into skin, a process known as ‘biohacking’, doesn’t feel all that far away. Implants and wearables are two sides of the same coin.
A company in Sweden is leading the way. Between ten and 20 employees at Epicenter, a members only collective known as Stockholm’s ‘house of innovation’, are currently pioneering an implant that replaces their traditional keyfob, allowing them access into the buildings and also control of the printers, among other things.
Hannes Sjoblad, chief disruption officer at Epicenter, is a biohacker activist who believes that implants are the ‘logical next step’ in wearable technology. He is part of the pioneering group, who according to Sjoblad, regularly get together to ‘discuss how the implant can be used further’.
The tiny RFID (radio-frequency identification) implant, about the size of a grain of rice, is inserted into the side of the hand, beneath the little finger, by a local tattoo artist. It is also able to transfer personal details to another person’s phone, simply by holding the chip next to it, and Sjoblad has also commandeered his chip’s usage for his gym, so that all he needs to do is present his finger to gain access when he goes.
It all seems quite space-age, but Sjoblad insists that any reservations directed towards the implant are largely the result of not understanding the technology. ‘The most common reaction is curiosity,’ says Sjoblad. He adds that it is the same level of controversy as a belly-button piercing or a false tooth. ‘People wouldn’t hesitate over having an artificial tooth,’ he says. ‘Over time it will be completely normalised.’
But what makes implants so attractive to Sjoblad and his fellow biohackers? For Sjoblad, the implant is about ridding his life of clutter. He points to the example of fitness trackers, citing research that claims half of American adults who own one no longer use it. And one-third of American consumers who have owned a wearable product stopped using it within six months.
‘The main reason for this is it is another item cluttering lives,’ he explains. ‘My wallet is much smaller than it used to be [now I have the implant].’
Implants can also be accessorised with any outfit, unlike plastic bracelets which can look unseemly. ‘Implants never have that aesthetic challenge,’ Sjoblad adds.
The wearables aesthetic is also something that Chinese technology company Huawei has been looking at, in conjunction with Dr Sabine Seymour, fashion futurologist and director of the Fashionable Technology Lab at Parsons The New School for Design in New York.
In September, to coincide with the launch of a new smartwatch, the Huawei Consumer Business Group revealed its predictions for the wearables industry, saying that technology will soon become even more compatible, not just with our watches, but with our other clothes as well.
Clothes, Seymour suggests, will become gesture and touch-sensitive like phones and tablets, as the world moves from networked devices to networked people and networked spaces. In the future, people may even be able to change the colour and pattern of their garments by downloading new designs through chips embedded seamlessly into clothing.
‘Today, consumers are rarely content with just staying connected; they are looking for a premium watch with a classic design, which is also technologically innovative,’ says Benjamin Norton, wearable design expert at the Huawei Consumer Business Group.
Seymour suggests that this transformation will start with our underwear, which will have in-built sensors to track personal data, such as heart rate and body temperature.
Wearables have seen huge growth in the health industry as a result of the data they provide. A recent report by Ipsos Healthcare found that, of those doctors who know what they want from digital healthcare technology, most identified ‘monitoring conditions’ as being the most important function. More than seven in ten doctors have used or recommended an app, forum or wearable in the past year.
Sjoblad remarks that one of the benefits of implants (and perhaps a contributing factor to their future prevalence over smartwatches and wristbands) is that they provide a ‘completely different quality of data’ when it comes to fitness tracking, with much more accurate results due its proximity to the body.
Furthermore, research published by technology company Orange found that fitness and medical wearables accounted for 60 per cent of the wearables market in 2013. One in three British and American citizens said they were willing to use wearable healthcare technology that shares personal data with healthcare providers, and 61 per cent of British and American wearable tech users said they felt more informed.
‘Digital health (in the form of lifestyle apps, wearables et cetera.) is acknowledged by doctors as part of the future of healthcare; however where and how it will be applied seems to be unclear,’ said the report by Ipsos Healthcare.
‘The primary barriers in development which need to be overcome are ensuring the technology developed is simple to use, reliable (with limited potential for error) and seamlessly integrated with current systems with optimum security features.’
Security is a key concern for most wearable users, as Sjoblad acknowledges that a lot of fear surrounds the implant’s tracking ability. But he insists that, in its current form, the implant cannot used to track, as you need to be within a couple of centimetres to read the chip. It is not a privacy breach and remains perfectly safe to use.
‘We’ve discovered so many practical uses,’ Sjoblad explains. ‘We don’t really see any negative effects. It’s not harmful, it’s sterilised. It’s non-biologically active, it doesn’t radiate in my body.’
Concerns over safety, particularly privacy, are also important in regards to the use of wearables in the financial services industry. Nationwide Building Society has offered its mobile app’s Quick Balance feature on Android and on Apple Live since 2014. Since its launch, the feature has been used 40 million times.
The Quick Balance feature displays how much is in an account with a single click, without logging into the app itself and without any additional fuss. However, such easy access can be worrying for some users.
Barnaby Davis, Nationwide’s retail strategy director, says that, contrary to these worries, the ability to use Quick Balance on wearables helps to empower customers, who ‘are happy to create their own permissions’ when it comes to privacy settings.
In the tourism industry, TUI likewise believes that putting ‘the power in the hands of customers’ is key to overcoming privacy concerns about its smartband wearable, with which customers can unlock their hotel room, control the air conditioning and pay for services in the restaurant and spa.
For example, the band, which is designed to be waterproof, sun-cream proof and ultimately holiday-proof, should allow parents to track their children at kids club and eliminate safety concerns, but these controls have to be up to the parents.
John Boughton, director of mobile strategy at TUI notes that privacy concerns have so far not arisen during the smartband’s trial at two of its hotels in Turkey and Kos. In fact, feedback from the trial has been overwhelmingly positive, to the point where it has actually created demand. Customers in other blocks of the hotel who are not involved in the trial have requested their own smartband.
The smartband will work alongside an app that allows users to keep an eye on their spending and according to Boughton, 60 per cent of customers with wristbands are using the app to check their spending, eliminating the need for holiday-makers to carry their wallet throughout the hotel.
Davis, too, acknowledges that we are heading to a far more wallet-less existence than we have experienced before. ‘We live in a world where you’re more likely to forget your wallet than your phone,’ he explains.
Nationwide’s relationship with wearables is based hugely on where its customers want them to be available. He believes that there is real demand for Nationwide apps on wearables. ‘We need to be ahead of that point where [customers are on platforms] already waiting for it,’ says Davis. ‘People either have a wearable device or they don’t. We’re just making our services available where they’re wanted.’
Boughton agrees that it is necessary for companies to keep up with technology, whatever the device. ‘Mobile moves so quickly, if you’re not keeping up, you’re falling behind, and if you’re falling behind, you’re becoming irrelevant.’
‘We’re selling the whole [holiday] experience, so that’s the end game really. Why wouldn’t you be able to use [the smartband] on a plane or in the airport, in duty free? We’ve really only scratched the surface.’
But, despite the seemingly unlimited potential of wearables, Nationwide’s Davis doesn’t believe that wearables will impact the traditional branch network. Instead, it is more likely that their use will cause an increase in branch activity instead. ‘[Customers] want to go back to a face-to-face experience because they’re confident now about what they want to do [with their banking].’
Wearables, whether implants or watches, are not set to change the world just yet. A report from SurveyMonkey, conducted in February 2015, found that the main function consumers from Australia, the UK and US want is simply to be able to tell the time.
Even Sjoblad acknowledges that at the moment, his implant only saves him time because it is always with him and he can’t forget it like he can keys. ‘It’s a productivity gain,’ he says. ‘It’s not much more dramatic than that.’
Boughton agrees, but notes that small gains are no less important. ‘Contactless saves you five seconds – it’s an irrelevant amount of time but as modern consumers, we’re lapping these small improvements up.’
Supermarket giant Tesco’s customers are also likely to be some of the first to benefit from wearable development. With the help of its smartwatch voice recognition app, Inform, Tesco’s staff can now instantly check stocks and order replenishments, meaning that customers no longer have to be frustrated at the lack of items on shelves.
The app was first launched on the smartphones of 45,000 users and was ‘very successful’ according to the Tesco Labs website. Tesco Labs also details plans for Google Glass, smart glasses that will allow shoppers to browse grocery products, view nutritional information, and add items to their shopping basket hands-free. On the Glass website, the app is designed to be a ‘great companion to the Tesco mobile applications that you use for all your grocery shopping.’
According to one of Tesco’s innovation engineers Pablo Coberly, however, writing on the Tesco Lab blog in January, ‘this is still the beginning of the journey for Glass and for Tesco’.
But the important thing is looking to the future. Sjoblad anticipates a world where implants might be used in facilities like old people’s homes, to track health and wellbeing, meaning that any knowledge his biohacking community develops will be invaluable from an ethical perspective.
By testing it now, Sjoblad will be able to question and examine its usage in the future. ‘It’s of great importance that we, as healthy, well-informed individuals learn about this technology,’ he says.
Davis, meanwhile, says that ‘predicting the next 24 months is hard. You wouldn’t count anything out now.’
The future’s out there. We just don’t know what it looks like.