The Future of Wearables Might Not Be Wearable at All

Researchers made a system that can monitor your breathing through a wall—no ugly wristband required.

Victoria Turk

Victoria Turk

Screenshot: Youtube/MIT CSAIL

The future of fitness tracker-style wearable tech might not be wearable at all. Researchers at MIT are developing a system that uses wireless technology to monitor things you might expect one of the various gadgety wristbands out there to do, except you don’t need to don any sci-fi bangles for the device to track you. You don’t even need to get an e-tattoo, or a chip implanted under your skin—it’s behind the walls.

Researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) have been working on a wireless system that can detect movement in a room, through a wall, using low-power radio frequency signals like wifi. Engadget picked up on the latest updates to the system, which has improved from a 10 cm accuracy reported last year down to, in some cases, millimetres. The difference? Now it can tell when you’re breathing.

Where a fitness monitor might track your pulse, the latest version of the system—which the researchers have named WiZ—can monitor the rise and fall of your chest when you breathe in and out. A press release from MIT claims that from that, the researchers can determine a person’s heart rate with 99 percent accuracy.

The system works using the reflection of radio waves off a person’s body. Basically, when a human moves around, they modulate the wireless signal; track the modulation, and you can work backwards to figure out where they are. In a paper outlining the technology, the researchers suggest this could have applications in video games or virtual reality—imagine a Kinect-like tool where you’re not restricted to the sensor’s line of sight—and more serious fields like healthcare monitoring or search and rescue. 

With WiZ, they’re able to locate five different people at the same time, or track the movement of four, to an accuracy of centimetres. It could also track all their breaths, and recognise gestures, such as pointing in different directions (as if you’re playing a multiplayer shooter).

That obviously brings to mind the kind of gesture-based interfaces that sci-fi promised us, enabled to interact with our computers and assorted smart stuff without doing anything so passé as physically touching a control. WiZ has its limitations, and in their paper the researchers concede it needs future work to improve accuracy and make it easier to deploy. At the moment, for instance, it could tell if a body part is waving, but couldn’t tell if it’s a hand or a foot. Still, it's a pretty convincing indicator of where the whole quantified self trend might take us. Our personal devices have been getting smaller and lighter with each technological advance, and it seems only logical that rather than having more gadgetry in the future, we'll have less—or none at all.

On a less pop-consumer note, however, being able to “see” through walls could potentially be used by search and rescue teams to locate survivors in an unsafe building, to track a sick person or a baby’s breathing.

And with increased accuracy come increased applications. The MIT post suggests that this kind of monitoring could one day even be used to pick up on people’s emotions, as physiological markers like breathing and heart rate can indicate how you’re feeling. Which admittedly sounds more than a little creepy.

While I’m grateful for anything that could save me the sartorial shame of decking my body out in cyber accessories, there’s certainly a creepier side to a device that could potentially track you without you even knowing it’s there. The walls might not have eyes or ears, but that doesn’t mean they’re not watching.