Technology Review #1: The Sony SmartWig

June 25, 2014

Written by Jess Willing-Pichs, with special thanks to contributors, Luke Hagan, Faith David-Hegerich, Ryan Shafer, Dino Kasvikis and Rebecca Huebner.

The collaborative nature of this blog is derivative of Ximedica’s monthly internal Technology Forum, a collective enterprise to share, disseminate and discuss new technologies, gadgets and innovations that have recently come into the public domain. Our engineers, researchers, and designers explore the potential impact of these technologies on future healthcare delivery solutions. In the coming months, we’ll introduce blogs like this one as a result of fruitful Forum discussions. Let us know what you think!

You may remember the buzz in early December about the Sony’s SmartWig patent filing.

We asked several Ximedicans from our Human Factors, Engineering and Design groups to weigh in with their thoughts on this patent. The skeptics among us would say that the SmartWig is gratuitous play for media attention, Sony’s attempt to sow a seed and stake a placeholder claim in the rapidly growing wearable sensor market.

This patent is deliberately ambiguous. It is missing necessary context with little holistic design development that will be required to be a commercially viable product. As depicted, the SmartWig is simply a chassis with a kitchen sink technology feature list that seems relevant only for a highly niche market of wig-wearing consumers. At first pass, it looks like a frivolous, easily dismissible non-starter. But if we dig deeper, this patent opens up a cornucopia of possibilities.

Sensor formats in and on the body are multiplying and morphing at an exponential rate. Some of the more compelling innovation coming to the sensor market is the design of seamlessly integrated and biometrically inconspicuous user experiences - with blended interface controls, minimal use steps, need anticipation and performance attributes that enhance human physical capabilities.

In evaluating the Sony SmartWig, one evident missing component is a graphic user interface; this proposed technology comes with hands-free control. If sensor design is able to give the user the ability to communicate with the device solely through brainwaves, connections can become much more intimate and the possibilities this presents are intriguing. The SmartWig could be a better, more versatile platform than Google Glass because the diagnostic and monitoring features can be hidden – absolutely no one needs to know.

When assessing the viability of this technology across commercial platforms, several applications come to mind. This technology could bring paradigm change to the gaming industry, where gamers control their moves with brainwaves – a very interesting direction for the struggling Playstation brand franchise. Brain stimulation could be very meaningful enabler for the physically impaired, the blind, the deaf, even those seeking to retrain their brain in post-trauma recovery. What if this device was developed as a drug-free therapy for addressing cognitive and behavioral issues (those with compulsive disorders, attention deficiency, hyperactivity or the rest of us who find it all too easy to procrastinate) – a head cap, if you will, for focused thinking and heightened productivity. What about high pressure sports where anxiety can be measured and mitigated to lower heart beats, increase oxygen levels and improve performance?

These directions are not all far-fetched catering to the trekkers among us. There is already a sensor cap worn under football helmets that can assess concussion impact, a headset with EEG sensors that can control a gaming platform, a headband that helps those suffering from sleep disorders and a ID badge sensor that tracks employee productivity.

So, what are the development barriers and engineering watch-outs for Sony in pushing forward with this concept?

The world of wearable technology is getting pretty cluttered but still few products have achieved mass appeal. At the root of the market challenge for all sensor-based projects is navigating the trade offs that live at the cross roads between reliable functionality, tangible and compelling outputs, elegant unobtrusiveness, seamless alignment to user behavior and comfort.

The obvious development hurdle is figuring how to ensure a good connection between the head scalp and the electrode sensor, without forcing your user population to shave their heads. What kind of feedback and data will the user receive? How will that data be accessed and by whom? How accurate is the collected data?

Thinking about basic human factors, this product of course needs to be easy to use. Can the user correctly don and start up the device with minimal exertion? Without a mirror? Will the device have the same performance capabilities when the body is in motion vs when sitting/standing still?

There is also the tricky reality that brainwaves are highly unique, requiring the device to be calibrated to the individual. How are small and large head sizes accommodated for? Can the feedback stimulus be tuned to avoid alarming overstimulation, depending on the sensitivity of the wearer?

What about the aesthetics? When the user is wearing the device, how does it make them feel emotionally? How happy will individuals feel with having electro-mechanical . battery-powered and potentially wifi-enabled contraption attached to their head?

Lastly, the engineers among us would be excited to figure out how a battery design that is discreetly small but also holds enough power for an entire day’s use without recharging.

No easy feat!