How 5G will transform wearable technology and make us healthier
The next generation of mobile communications network, 5G, promises faster data transfers, increased bandwidth, and the ability to connect many more devices to the internet. Mobile network operators are currently rolling it out across the world.
This will be transformative for wearable technology, allowing devices to get smaller while extending their capabilities. In health and wellness in particular, people will be able to receive real-time feedback on everything from chronic medical conditions to exercise plans.
However, not all of this will happen everywhere at once. 5G availability – and capability – varies widely across the world. Nevertheless, it promises to be worth waiting for.
Wearable technology and 5G
Speed has been the emphasis in 5G marketing so far. Users can download games faster, for example. With data rates expected to reach 10Gbps – up to 100-times faster than 4G – downloading might not even be necessary. Streaming a movie in 4K becomes realistic with 5G, so does mobile virtual reality or augmented reality.
The fastest 5G uses a technology called mmWave, which is super-fast but short range, so it will need more transmitters. The other type of 5G, sub-6GHz 5G, is slower but covers a wide area. Cities are more suitable for mmWave, while sub6GHz will eventually cover everywhere else.
For wearables, however, speed isn’t the most interesting feature of 5G. First, 5G offers much lower latency than 4G. The time to transfer data between two points drops from around 20 milliseconds to about 1 millisecond. That’s near-instant for most use cases, which is vital for an autonomous vehicle which needs to know instantly if its route must change.
Crucial to this is edge computing. Instead of sending data to and from a central network node, edge computing puts storage and computation power closer to the users, in lots of intermediate nodes. Those extra mmWave transmitters could be ideal sites, for instance.
Shorter data transfers are faster, so the device itself needs less computational power. Imagine an engineer repairing a factory machine. They could wear AR glasses to scan the machine and guide them through diagnostic tests. The glasses wouldn’t need to store any data or analyse results because the information could be relayed to a nearby edge server. This means the glasses could be smaller and lighter or fit more sensors and a bigger battery into the same form factor.
The 5G radio itself demands power and can be one of the costliest components in an Internet of Things (IoT) device. However, newly developed software radios can eliminate analogue radio components, cutting the cost by 90 percent while also reducing weight and power consumption. This opens the way for ‘smart dust’ sensors that could one day be embedded in paint or sprayed over farmland.
Wearable technology and 5G
Making wearables smaller and lighter is a massive benefit for health-focused devices. People are more likely to wear a slim, fashionable band than a big, chunky watch. Smart rings or ‘hearables’ – smart earphones – also become more appealing when they are smaller and lighter.
As sensor prices continue to fall it is becoming easier to embed clinical grade monitoring of pulse, blood pressure, blood oxygen, breathing and more. Wearables can then help users better manage everything from stress and sleep patterns, to exercise plans and chronic conditions.
For patients with chronic health conditions, healthcare providers could use analytics to process data sent over 5G from a wearable device. The patient would get real-time feedback on whether everything was normal, if they needed to book a check-up or, in the worst case, seek emergency assistance.
Real-time feedback makes exercise management more effective too. Casual runners could get alerts to tell them to push harder or ease off. An Olympic marathoner might receive pacing information based on weather conditions, previous performance, and the performance of every other runner in the race. All this could be collated for television viewers. They might see, for instance, that the leader has increased their pace, but their heart rate has climbed significantly, suggesting they might soon slow down.
This depends on another 5G feature: it can handle vastly more simultaneous connections than 4G. It will eventually be able to support up to one million devices per square kilometre, removing the bottlenecks users will have experienced with 4G in crowds. That’s essential when there are expected to be more than 29 billion connected devices worldwide by 2023. 5G would be of huge advantage to technologies that aim to connect people across crowds, improving the user experience of such platforms. Thrive have worked on early trials of a hardware enabled service that works through a globally scalable blockchain. It allowed people to follow their teams alongside like-minded supporters in a truly multi-dimensional experience, supporting real-time emotion detection in crowds. Thrive’s comprehensive user trials and extensive data collection took place with access to fans in premier league stadiums. As a result, we had direct experience of the network ‘disappearing’ when vast numbers of people try to use it. 5G is designed to overcome these issues, and would be an asset to the wearable tech space.
Location awareness boosts health monitoring
The Covid-19 pandemic demonstrated the health benefits of location tracking. Many countries used smartphone apps to trace contacts and then tell those potentially exposed to the virus to self-isolate. In future, 5G and wearables would increase these capabilities, first by making the data transfer near-instant, and second, tracking signs of possible infection, such as body temperature.
Knowing how many people are in an area can also help, not only with managing the spread of infectious disease but also with crowd safety. It can be useful, too, to track dementia patients who get lost when not monitored by a carer. They can also be used more proactively, to alert a carer when the patient leaves the grounds of a care home. Read more about how location tracking can be use to improve lives for those in care in our recent article, here.
These are high value, low friction use cases and can even be deployed in relatively mundane healthcare situations, such as directing patients to their appointment room through a large and crowded hospital.
The 5G timeline
As with any technology, the benefits must be weighed against the costs and the extent to which user needs can be met. Tracking people raises ethical questions, even if it’s considered to be ‘for their own good’. As we have seen during the pandemic, some people object to tracking on principle. There are also security questions. How easily can malicious actors access these devices? Can the devices leak data? Can the user be tricked into revealing private information? All these are vital questions during the design phase.
Another question is the extent to which 5G coverage is available and in what quality. By early 2021, 5G was available in 61 countries, with more planning their rollouts. However, coverage can vary within countries and even within cities. The UK has had 5G services since 2019 but that covers anywhere between 40 and 75 towns and cities, depending on which network you use. Large parts of the US, particularly rural areas, will have to wait a long time for any kind of 5G, while some urban areas have 5G but at speeds that are only marginally faster than 4G LTE.
“The future is already here,” science fiction author William Gibson famously said, “it’s just not very evenly distributed.” He could have been talking about 5G. Developers will be reluctant to put resources into a device that relies on 5G without significant spread of coverage and speed. Emerging network technologies might fill some of the gaps. LoRaWAN (Long Range Wide Area Network) is one such technology. It is designed for devices that regularly transmit small amounts of data over areas of up to 10km for as long as 10 years. This is already being used in wearables like connected hearing aids and trackers to monitor the safety of ultramarathon runners.
It will take a long time to build up the infrastructure necessary for 5G’s full capabilities, but the technology is advancing quickly and options like LoRaWAN can fill the gaps. The opportunities for wearable technology are enormous.