The line between wearable technology and prosthetics is blurring


The new Soundhawk smart listening device isn’t for the traditional wearers of hearing aids. (Soundhawk)

Remember when wearing any kind of prosthetic device – even something as simple as a hearing aid – immediately marked you as being somehow afflicted with some sort of physical deficiency? Those days could soon be over thanks to the emerging number of ways that wearable technology is changing how and why we use technology to improve our five human senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch.

Importantly, it’s not just athletes who are turning into “superhuman” performers as the result of using the new generation of high-tech prosthetics. It’s also average people with a sense of style who are designing new types of prosthetics that look nothing like the prosthetics of the past – they are stylish, sleek and designed for the high-tech lifestyle. In other words, wearing them may no longer stigmatize you.

Take hearing, for example. In the past, you’d buy a prosthetic device – a hearing aid – that would help you overcome a hearing deficiency. Wearing one in public would mark you — unfairly, of course — as someone whose auditory skills were on the decline. People who saw you wearing a hearing aid would assume that you were “old” – with all the negative connotations that term carries in a society centered around youth.

Fast-forward to 2014 and now wearing a hearing aid could mean having access to enhanced hearing that makes you the envy of your friends. Soundhawk’s new “smart listening system” basically turns you into a “hawk,” in the sense that you can pick out sounds from anywhere, focus on them, and tune out the noise. Soundhawk also plays nice with your smartphone, meaning that you can have a superior hearing and communication experience when interacting with others while making a call in a loud room or on a busy street. That may not immediately sound like a big deal, but how many times when using your smartphone do you ask your friends or colleagues to repeat what they just said? How many times have you missed an important point at a loud, crowded restaurant?

How about wearable technology and the sense of sight? You can think of Google Glass being at the forefront of new high wearable technology that’s capable of giving users an augmented sense of sight. And it’s not just Google – Oakley is also experimenting with ways to give athletes a sense of “super sight.” And you wouldn’t even think of these wearables you attach to your head as being a form of prosthetic.

And don’t forget about the sense of smell, either. Computer scientists are hard at work to make it possible for inanimate objects to have a sense of smell. And just this month, for the first time ever, scientists sent the first transatlantic “scent messages” between New York and Paris. You can almost imagine the next generation of wearables with super-smell and super-taste functionality built-in. Restaurants and top chefs might give you the ability to attach a small wearable device to your nose or mouth before a meal to get a flavor sensation. Humans can only pick out four core flavors (five, if you count umami) — what if we could experience more than this?

All of this talk about wearable technology augmenting our human senses should remind you of the recent IBM 5 in 5 survey from 2012, which predicted that by 2017, computers would be able to emulate all five of the human senses. Maybe the IBM 5 in 5 survey didn’t go far enough. After all, those were the senses that we define as uniquely human. But what about those belonging to animals, like night vision? It’s not so far-fetched, if you thing about night vision goggles or sonar devices, that we might one day use wearable technology to give us additional senses found only in the animal kingdom.

If all this sounds like a scenario out of a comic book superhero story, well, maybe it is. Batman and Spiderman — weren’t they just average humans who wore special clothing that turned them into superheroes with abilities obtained from the animal kingdom? In the same way, wearables could end up being about augmented senses, turning us all into mini-cartoon superheroes with at least one “super” sense, whether it’s hearing, sight, taste, smell or touch.

Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.
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