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The Building Blocks of Everything

This Gecko-Inspired Wearable Is Based on a Primal Motive for Self-Adornment

Meet the self-tracking smart patch that magically sticks to your skin.

Mark Mann

Mark Mann

Image: MagniWare

One of the inventors of a self-tracking smart patch wants to talk to me about magic.

Alexander Mosa and I are sitting in a boardroom at the MaRS research centre in Toronto, where his company MagniWare is developing a device called the Magni that sticks directly to your skin—but without any sticky stuff. Mosa, along with co-inventors Miles Montgomery and Robert Brooks, based the sensor-packed patch on the features of a gecko's foot. It uses physics rather than glue to stay fixed in place.

Put it on your bicep, and you'll see exactly how hard you're squeezing. Put it on your heart, and you'll see in extremely fine detail how fast it's beating.

But wearable tech is in a bubble phase, and according to Mosa, the bubble is about to pop. Or as he puts it, a "major extinction event is coming." And finding traction for a new entry into the over-crowded wearables market is going to take more than good science.

The only way to survive the coming smart-pocalypse, he thinks, is to access a more primal motive for self-adornment: magic.

"You just slap it on,"—he strikes his chest with an open palm—"and you're ready to go."

People used to believe they could conjure magic powers by applying tribal paint or special jewelry before battle or important ceremonies. "Belief in magic is an overstatement of your psychological impact on the physical world," Mosa told me, paraphrasing neurologist Sigmund Freud's 1913 book Totem and Taboo. In other words, "The feeling that we're more confident to partake in exertion once we've adorned ourselves goes back to pre-history, and that's the only place wearable technology could go and not be a fad," Mosa explained.

A wristband, apparently, doesn't cut it for Mosa. But with a Magni, "You just slap it on,"—he strikes his chest with an open palm—"and you're ready to go."

Adhesive wearables for medical use have been around for a while, but so far they've all been fussy, needing to be applied and continually re-applied, like a bandaid or a temporary tattoo. So instead the Magni is designed after the print of the gecko's foot, which uses millions of little bristles to create loose-but-stable bonds—specifically, van der Waal's bonds—with whatever surface it touches. Take it on and off a thousand times, or wear it in the shower, and it always stays. And while it's definitely not invisible—the latest prototype isn't as bulky as those pictured, but it's not all that subtle either—wearing a Magni felt like wearing nothing at all.

When it launches this fall, Mosa thinks the ability to conceal the device will be a big part of Magni's appeal. It can be applied directly to the ribcage, so users can read their vitals without making a statement—no bracelets-as-totems to the quantified self. The existing array of wrist-gear is less sleek and stylish than plastic and cumbersome, and so rather than make yet another glorified arm-bangle, Magni will let people keep their self-tracking under wraps.

The device, which will retail on MagniWare's website for under $100, packs an EMG, ECG, an accelerometer and a temperature sensor. These are attached along flexation points to a bendable polyimide motherboard, so that the device—which communicates with the user's phone via bluetooth—is nearly as flexible as the silicone that houses it. When placed on a muscle, the MagniFit app can use data from these sensors to measure the electrical potential, or strength, of that muscle. When placed on the chest near the heart, the MagniLife app can measure heart-rate variability (HRV), or the subtle differences in the length of time between each heartbeat, a standard metric for gauging stress.

In other words, MagniLife can tell you when you need to take a break (or, in a dystopian world, it could tell your boss when you don't).

In a market already saturated with wearables, the real test is whether people will actually buy Mosa's primal magic pitch.

According to Mosa, a person doing rehab or physical therapy could set a target exertion level—say, 70% of their maximum muscle contraction—and MagniFit would alert the wearer for going over or under their goal. Mosa has even been meeting with NBA and NHL franchises who are interested in making Magni part of their data collection strategy, giving coaches the ability to monitor fatigue in different muscles on the players' bodies in real time.

The team hopes that even more apps will be developed by third-party companies using their open API. A second generation model is expected eight or nine months after Magni's launch, and according to Mosa, "could have strain gauges for respiration and upgraded accelerometers for concussion and impact detection."

Mosa wants Magni to appeal not only to self-tracking consumers and pro-sports players; he's also hoping it will be taken up by researchers too. The first shipment of Magnis this spring will be distributed for free to labs around Toronto, and to members of the medical community not long after, where they can evaluate its potential for monitoring patients with heart conditions. If the Magni can actually appeal to all of these disparate groups, it really will be magic. But that's a lot of different pitches to make.

Certainly if basketball players and Olympic athletes start showing up with flashy patches on their arms and legs, it'll make Mosa's job easier. But in a market already saturated with wearables, the real test is whether people will actually buy Mosa's primal magic pitch—and it'll take more than a gecko's foot to make that stick.

This story is part of The Building Blocks of Everything, a series of science and technology stories on the theme of materials. Check out more here: http://motherboard.tv/building-blocks-of-everything

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Correction - March 10: A previous version of this article listed Alexander Miles as a co-inventor of Magni. Rather, Magni's co-inventors are Alexander Mosa, Miles Montgomery and Robert Brooks.

The article also stated that Magni has an EEG, ECG and temperature sensor, and that later versions would contain some of the more standard sensors that you'd find in wearables from FitBit or Jawbone, too. This is incorrect. Rather, Magni will have an EMG, ECG, an accelerometer and a temperature sensor at launch.