“Wearables” for the World’s Poor

The new release of the Apple Watch has been incredibly successful. Now that many have purchased the new technology, analysts predict a revenue-generating marketplace of $22.9 billion by 2020.

Apple Watches, “Fitbits.” and other personal technology, coined “wearables,” are hardly considered vital to a person’s life. In fact, consumers purchase this technology for selfish reasons: to sleep better, exercise harder or work more efficiently.

However, what if “wearables” could be transformed and used for good in the developing world? Could these smart devices offer more than convenience? Could they be considered life-changing or even life-saving?

UNICEF has partnered with design firms ARM and Frog to launch the “Wearables for Good” initiative. The contest involves designing and programming a wearable device to offer a solution “to pressing maternal, newborn or child health problems.”

Two winners will be selected after the early August deadline, and each will receive $15,000 in funding and a “mentorship” from both ARM and Frog.

Technology used for health monitoring and education in developing countries isn’t new. UNICEF currently uses a small arm band to monitor children’s nutrition levels. Similar to a blood pressure cuff, the non-digital tape wraps around the child’s upper arm, measuring its circumference and changing colors based on how well the child is fed.

The Embrace bag, which resembles a miniature sleeping bag, protects premature and low-weight babies from hypothermia. It was built for families in developing countries to regulate infants’ temperatures as hospital infrastructure can be inconsistent.

Some technology has proven helpful in the developing world; yet, this initiative is meeting various challenges. How would information and data control be monitored? How do developers plan to approach the issue of battery life? This is one of the major issues that could seriously limit “wearables'” reach in developing markets. Access to electricity could be minimal or non-existent in parts of the world where the technology is to serve.

A proposed solution is developing and integrating low-power chips that run the wearable devices, Ian Ferguson, vice president of segment marketing at ARM, said. ARM serves as a chip developer whose current designs are found in many smart phones. Another solution is to move the data collected by the wearable device to the cloud in efforts to prolong battery life.

Another issue is the potential markets in developing countries. ARM CEO Simon Segars said he often hears from others that there is little money to be made in developing countries. Many believe that new technology will be misunderstood and useless in countries without education and established infrastructure.

The most encouraging comparison to the “wearables” market is the cellphone. Affordable cellphones have become widespread and transformative in many developing regions. They are used not only to communicate, but to open bank accounts, manage small loans and connect up to pay-as-you-go solar technology.

While the cost of new technology is decreasing, the potential for good is increasing. UNICEF’s initiative is a reminder that the latest in personal consumer technology might also provide increasing solutions to life-threatening problems for the world’s poor.

– Alison Decker

Sources: UNICEF, Forbes, CNET, Huffington Post, UNICEF
Photo: Voice oF America