Digital Health

Wearable or implantable? Would you face the needle?

30th March 2016

A colleague recently attended the 2016 ‘March of the Droids’ (a conference, or gathering, for Android enthusiasts) and one of the presentations was about embedded NFC Chips – the history, their use, the size of them, how they would be implanted.

I’ve been around long enough to see the entrance of many new technologies to the market place.  They all take time to evolve before they are ready for the mass consumer market; biometrics, voice recognition, RFID chips (not embedded in humans), and even video conferencing all had major issues to overcome regarding capability, consumer functionality, physical size and of course the cost – moving from prohibitively expensive to cost models that work for mass market adoption.  Are we now entering the early adopter’s stage for implantable NFC tags into consumers rather than solely academics, government and military operations?

The Size

We’re talking about a number of things here.  No doubt some of you are most interested in its storage capacity.   As you might expect quite limited to 7 bytes for the UID (unique identifier) but up to 888 bytes for the read/write memory.  That is the equivalent of storing just short of an uncompressed 30 x 30 pixel image (at 8 bits).  For example a small logo or business card data (a Passport photo as a comparison is something like 413 x 531 pixels).  The current tag is purely for storing data, there are no options to include any form of processing.  You would need to be within 10 centimetres of a reader for it to work, but options to boost this are changing all the time.  But is it storage capacity stats that really matter most in this case?  The real question is how big is this thing you are about to inject into my body and how massive will the needle be to make it happen!

A very hearty sized grain of rice, approx. 2 mm x 12 mm, intuitively feels like quite a lump to inject through a needle into the soft flappy space between my thumb and forefinger.  Eeek!   Needles don’t really scare me but the thought of this does send mini shivers down my spine.  However from all I have read on the topic and what I’ve heard from my ‘Droid’ colleague ‘it doesn’t hurt that much’.  Early adopters are made of tough stuff it would appear in the pursuit of technological breakthroughs or perhaps just that tiny (grain of rice) opportunity to be part cyborg!

The Cost

If size doesn’t put you off then let’s think about cost.  Is this now accessible by the masses [early adopter cyborg masses]?  The simple answer is yes but there is more to it than that.  £69 and you too could become a connected body.  The tricky bit is where do you go to get it done and, I would suggest more importantly, why would you get it done?  What functionality would encourage you to make the leap to volunteer for a minor surgical procedure?   Would your banking details really be the first motivation? If so, I have visions of lining up in a bank lobby under a teller sign that says ‘Cash Withdrawals, Money Transfers, Body Deposits’.   Though a great vision I think we’ll leave banks struggling with photocopied forms of ID for now rather than implanting their customers with NFC chips.

No, head not to your bank or even your doctors but take your ‘pre-loaded injection assembly’ to a piercing parlour near you,  as this is being touted as one of the options going forward.   Makes sense… kind of.  They have the expertise and hands are probably infinitely easier than other parts of the anatomy to pierce.  If you’re not convinced about a piercer then the fall-back is of course your doctor, a nurse or a vet!  Don’t discount this last option, they are possibly the  most experienced option as they’ve been implanting chips into pets for many years (though pet chips are not designed to be removable, human ones are).

The Functionality

This is where the early adopters, who are our foot soldiers, try out the technology with pretty limited functionality before the rest of us embrace the really tried, tested and cool stuff.  Today the norm is to store basic ID but it’s not a big jump for it to be used to automatically unlock your laptop; or open the door to your office; or store a link to your business card.

In the future it’s easy to imagine ‘wave-and-go’ shopping, peer-to-peer money transfers and with increased capacity there’s no stopping a chip holding important information about us.  There have been trials to store medical information on the chip so in the case of an emergency you have everything the medical profession would need to know about you.  As a broadcast only technology the use is always going to be limited, but if in the future some power and processing capability was added then the idea that you’d never have to carry wallets, keys or even passports could become a reality.

What about adding a GPS locator and you could keep track of where people are?   And here we have arrived at the point where many people start to squirm in their seat and feel more than a bit uncomfortable.  The question of privacy and the ability to be able to turn on or off the chip makes many people anxious, in fact there are already states in the US who have put in place legislation to stop embedded chips.

Privacy and security concerns?

This is probably the biggest hurdle for everyone.  Though we are somewhat trackable today this is a considerable step further into the world of ‘big brother is watching’.  Could you turn off your chip in order to ‘go off the grid’?  How many people do you know today who have decided to turn off their Twitter or Facebook account as they feel they are never unconnected?   Could the chip be cloned as bank cards are today?   I guess a lead lined glove is always an option though I prefer the image of people walking around with some kind of home-made Faraday cage on their hand – something akin to wrapping yourself in aluminium foil.

These are the questions that the mass of consumers will need concrete answers to before they head down this path.

Slope of Enlightenment?

Are implanted NFC chips headed out of the Trough of Disillusionment and onto the Slope of Enlightenment?   Embedded chips are not new, there have been many different trials and attempts to commercialise them.  There is however a renewed interest in the media and tech forums.    As companies look at ways of adapting the technology to suit consumers directly (and sell to them directly) and not solely looking at ways companies and corporations will deploy them.   If camera’s and Angry Birds ‘made it’ for smartphones, what will ‘make it’ for the embedded chip?

The Big Question

Would you?   It’s not new technology, it’s been trialled, tested and talked about for many years.  The functionality to make it mainstream adoptable is still a way off, but no doubt it is coming.  The discussion in our own office ended up with a would you or wouldn’t you debate and so we ran a quick poll to gauge the gut reaction.  The result was not a split down the middle as you might expect, for a very tech savvy group, but rather only 30% for it and 70% against.   There was however a general agreement that as the technology adapts it creates the opportunity for some incredible new breakthrough apps and for us to become, even in a tiny grain of rice like way, part of the Borg.

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