While numerous wearables tout fitness benefits, few devices have demonstrated any empirical evidence of improving wellness. This may be about to change. Last week researchers at the University of Buffalo revealed their progress on a pair of LED eye glasses that will use light therapy to treat insomnia.It’s become clear that the golden use case that would propel wearables from a clever accessory to a genuine necessity has yet to emerge.
The argument that insomnia treatment could be the kind of use case that brings health wearables into the public eye (pun intended) makes good sense. The current round of wearables which feature things like step counting and vibrating emoji pale before the necessity of receiving a decent night of sleep. Almost 48% of Americans suffer from insomnia making it one of the most widespread health problems in the developed world. When you’re counting sheep at three in the morning, you probably don’t need a sleep tracker to let you know what an awful night of rest you’re receiving. While a variety of smartwatches and phones tout sleep tracking features, these have done little more than offer an accurate measurement of just how acute the problem has become. And while a variety of medications can provide some relief, the side effects are often as severe as the malaise. Enter light therapy.
While the practice of using selective lighting to reset one’s biological clock, and thus combat insomnia, has been in use for several decades, the success of these treatments have been held back by technological hurdles.In previous years, light therapy involved breaking from one’s activities to spend long periods in front of a device that would emit light on a wavelength meant to mimic that of bright sunlight. While the researchers at the University of Buffalo haven’t fundamentally deviated from this method, they have adapted the light source to be mounted on a pair of lightweight glasses not dissimilar from the now ubiquitous Google glass. Light was shot into the user’s field of vision, triggering neorotransmitters that reset the user’s biological clock during these sessions.These light emitting glasses contain their own power source and allow the user to freely go about their daily activities, driving the car or cutting vegetables, all the while receiving light therapy.
The researchers conducted the study with lung cancer patients, one of the groups for whom insomnia can be particularly troublesome. “Sleep is important for patients with cancer because it is critical for immune system functioning, learning and memory, and overall quality of life,” commented Grace Dean who headed up the study. Lung cancer patients suffer increased levels of insomnia due the effects of the illness, such as pain, anxiety, nausea, and impaired breathing. Meanwhile, people living far from the equator are also at increased risk due to the limited amounts of sunlight they receive in certain seasons. Aside from these groups, a whole other class of insomniacs has arisen due to increased use of cell phones, tablets, and other LED devices which emit a type of blue light that plays havoc with the human biological clock.
Already a product called Retimer is commercializing the use of light emitting glasses for treating insomnia. With academic institutions providing the empirical evidence for direct to consumer health solutions like this, it shouldn’t be long before we see other disease treating wearables become increasingly popular.