Technology that gets under your skin

Embeddables won't just be a revolution in functionality, but will dramatically alter how people fit into society.


Editor’s note: we’re running a series of five excerpts from our forthcoming book Designing for Emerging Technologies, a compilation of works by industry experts in areas of user experience design related to genomics, robotics, the Internet of Things, and the Industrial Internet of Things.

In this excerpt, author Andy Goodman, group director at Fjord Madrid, looks beyond wearable computing to a deeper, more personal emerging computing technology: embeddables. Goodman says that beyond wearables and implants lies a future symbiosis of human and machine that will transform not only the delivery of information and services, but human nature as well.


Author Andy Goodman, group director at Fjord Madrid.

Wearables are yesterday’s news; tomorrow’s news will be all about embeddables, tiny computing devices implanted inside your body that monitor your health, improve your functioning, and connect you to the digital world.

There is currently a lot of buzz in technology and design circles about wearables, living services, the Internet of Things, and smart materials. As designers working in these realms, we’ve begun to think about even more transformative things, envisioning a future where evolved technology is embedded inside our digestive tracts, sense organs, blood vessels, and even our cells. Everyday objects will become responsive and predictive, connecting us to the data sphere and reducing the distance between our skin and the surfaces of the made world. What we see further out, beyond the realm of wearables and implants, is the future symbiosis of the human body and the machine.

Four converging technologies are going to radically transform our interaction with the world: genetics, robotics, information delivery, and nanotechnology. With a few exceptions, such as pacemakers and artificial hips, technology has always been one distance removed from our bodies and brains. Not for much longer. The interface between the made world and us is going to become almost invisible. The monolithic device with a screen may be on the verge of disappearing: it is being enhanced with numerous smaller devices, which may soon replace it as the way to access information. We will arrive at a more ambient experience, where sensors capture information about us and feed that information into systems quietly working away in the background. Wearables will give way to “embeddables,” nano-scale machinery inside our bodies that can monitor us and modify us.

These systems will act as mental and sensory prosthetics, exponentially increasing our knowledge, perception, and manipulation of the world around us. The early uses we are seeing in domains such as health care and fitness will extend further to virtually any domain we can think of. Communications, entertainment, socialising, learning, work, self-actuation — any human activity we can think of — is going to be modified and amplified with an invisible mesh of data and processing that we will drift through, mostly obliviously.

Embeddables are not just going to be a revolution in functionality, but will dramatically alter how people fit into society, affect human psychology, and even propel us toward intellectual or spiritual transcendence.

Just looking at visual experience and sensing, we can see how this could come about. Imagine being able to perceive different light frequencies, the world in microscopic detail, or far distant objects in the universe. This would have a profound effect on our understanding of reality and our place in it.

Before we can start dreaming about the evolutionary acceleration that might be granted by these technologies, we have to come back down to earth for a while. There are many practical barriers that need to be considered. Embeddables will be sitting so close to us that the right balance between unobtrusiveness and affordance will have to be found. Systems that can predict and even meet our needs without us having to intervene will be the ones that resonate and find an audience.

We can already see with the rather too rapid backlash against Google Glass that people are very particular about what they put onto their bodies and how “social deviance” could become a big barrier to adoption. Parodies of people wearing Google Glass on shows like Saturday Night Live and the fact that the New Yorker has dubbed early adopters “Glassholes” shows exactly the problem with wearable tech. It can open us up to ridicule. The designs of future wearables will need to subtly integrate with our clothing and our bodies, or become fashion statements in their own rights if they aren’t to become an evolutionary dead end in the tech tree.

Likewise, the design paradigms that we invent for these ambient systems where the entire body becomes an interactive canvas will need to steer clear of a different kind of social deviance. Maybe in the future we will become accustomed to the jerking, twitching, winking, nodding motions of the Glass wearer in the way that it has become socially normed to browse your phone while some is talking to you (“phubbing”), but for now, it looks deeply peculiar.

Whilst conversations are not yet mainstream, embeddables are emerging as a new topic for debate. According to a recent panel at Venture Beat, “Wearable” computers will soon be inside us. “Embeddables” are going to have significant consequences for the delivery of digital services as screen-based interaction becomes less prominent, and possibly even disappears.

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