7 November 2014

The Augmented Human: Implantables – A “Hypothetical?” Product Roadmap

A short while ago I tweeted on the issue of brand loyalty using an oft used sci-fi technology as a talking point. It went like this:

“If you think brand loyalty is essential for take up of wearable technology imagine how important it will be for implantables!”

We’ve all seen films where people are augmented with a variety of implants that allow them to interact with the world and each other without resorting to clunky old-fashioned devices such as smart phones and tablets. At the same time however, we challenge the idea that people would be willing to have such implants – the leap from purchased product to surgical intervention is simply too great to envisage.

This got me thinking about what such a technology could do, and what it would take to introduce it to the market given the invasive and potentially permanent nature of the devices involved… and this is how my thinking went:

From Little Acorns
The best way to introduce radical transformation into the lives of change averse human beings is in small, imperceptible but beneficial steps. However, even small changes are difficult to introduce and so we have to find an audience receptive to that change. This audience is typically the young and/or the adventurous. So, as for many emerging technologies, our target audience might be teenagers.

We then need a single, incremental change that can be made to their existing lives that will provide benefit and at the same time make the greater changes we intend to make more palatable.

Imagine a large corporation has just purchased a trendy brand of headphones and sees this as the channel for introducing implantables onto the market. Imagine that this corporation has access to miniaturised technology that allows a microscopic passive device to be produced that vibrates when exposed to an external signal (e.g. from a smartphone), and that this device is suitable for insertion under the skin near the eardrum (maybe at a reputable ear-piercing establishment). For purposes of brevity let’s call these devices “Beatbuds”.

Now, imagine I’m a teenager and I want to listen to my music in an unobtrusive way, and perhaps even surreptitiously at home or in college. I might consider adopting these Beatbuds as my headphone of choice – after all, they’re not really implantables are they? They just go under the skin.

One Step Leads to Another
So now we have a group of customers able to listen to their music without wires and without any external appendages. They can even use their Beatbuds for phone conversations (but of course they then annoyingly have to hold the phone up to speak into it. Imaging how much easier it would be if that same ear-piercing establishment could insert a similar passive device under the skin of the neck close to the voice box. Of course, if I’ve already had the first implant I’m not going to hesitate on the second as it completes my ensemble.

Now I can use my audio devices completely hands free – voice can be used to control the device, have proper conversations with my friends and even create short textual updates such as Tweets. With practice I can even use voice to create longer pieces of text.

Hands Free... To Do What?
But, voice input for commands is so difficult sometimes, especially in a noisy environment or when I want to keep my communication to myself. Wouldn’t a few of those passive microphones also act as touch sensors? After all, that’s why we have finger prints – so that when we hold something or run our fingers over them the resulting (sound) vibrations create a sense of touch and movement.

Can I have one in each finger, please, and could you then create a touch based interface into my smartphone so that I can use my hands to create messages and control what happens. (And, by the way, that smartphone of mine has no microphone or speakers now so there should be room for more battery and processing power, and if my fingers are touch sensitive any surface will do and the screen no longer needs to be touch sensitive so you could project it onto that surface.

Better still, maybe those finger implants could have basic accelerometer capability so gestures in the air can also be used, and if we reuse the Beatbud technology they could also vibrate to give us a form of force feedback when we touch a virtual surface as well as a real surface. 

See What I Mean?
That was going so well. I’m bought into the implantable model and I’m creating a full implantable eco-system that I am not only comfortable with but am rapidly becoming dependent upon.

And then you made me get that damn phone thing out of my pocket to see what I’m doing. If you could integrate it with a head-up display that would complete the picture wouldn’t it? Hang on a minute? If you think I’m going to wear those weird looking glasses when I spent good money on laser eye surgery to avoid wearing spectacles you’ve got another think coming. Keep up with the times – we’re all doing implantables now and waiting impatiently for the optic nerve implant that will complete the experience.

Imagine how great it would be if I could not only hear, speak and touch without devices. Imagine if I could see a virtual world overlaid on the real world creating a much richer and more natural experience. Imagine if I could see what you were seeing with your implants. If when we were talking you could sit in front of a mirror and I could talk directly to your reflection as if you were sitting opposite me. Wouldn’t it be great at work if I could have a truly realistic face to face meeting with you and your colleagues without travelling to your office and without resorting to any video conferencing capability? 

And with breakthroughs now emerging in non-invasive sensors that allow thoughts to be converted into words and direct brain to brain communication having now been achieved via internet connectivity with a matrix of implants in the scalp, why use voice at all?

In the Bad Old Days
“Come to think of it, Dad, I’m not really sure how people managed without all this stuff?”

“Well, Son, I still remember the day when we carried iPhones around and used those old fashioned Beatbuds to just listen to music!”

“What’s an iPhone, dad?”

“You know that little Hubplant you have next to your belly button? Well as little as ten years ago those used to be as big as your hand and you had to carry them around with you if you wanted to do just about anything!”

“Really? Why?!”

The Enterprising Architect


  1. Hi Jon,

    If we assume your implantables include sensors as part of the Internet of Things then the effective management of that requires a fundamental redesign of computing.

    As an Enterprise Architect working in Government I'd be interested in your views on this http://goo.gl/Y2peoS


    John Alexander (ja@his.co.uk)

  2. It is not necessary to assume that these implantables need to be connected to the internet of things. Near field commuications is sufficient for this purpose.

    Apart from the core command and control implantable the majority of the devices I describe are simply local sensors that can be accessed by the command and control unit. This is not conceptually any different to the concept of a bluetooth keyboard or headset and would require no changes to existing computing models. The issues at hand are clearly miniaturisation and provision of power to the types of devices that we already have.