Jul 29, 2019

The term Internet of Things (aka IoT) entered the lexicon in 1999. Since then, there has been a proliferation of related terms, such as the Web of Things (WoT) and Internet of Medical Things (IoMT). We recently heard the term Internet of Bodies (IoB), and it really caught our attention.

IoB describes devices placed on or implanted into the human body and that promise to carry on a steady conversation with us and others via the Internet. Indeed, some people can now monitor and control certain body functions, or therapies influencing function, using a smartphone app. IoB has been a game changer for people who live with specific medical conditions such as diabetes. For instance, a new generation of insulin pumps connect to an app that communicates wirelessly with the pumps while also sending data to the Cloud for other diagnostic and therapeutic uses. Incidentally, such devices – that might be more accurately described as systems – are creating new human factors concerns.

And “ingestible sensors” are starting to arrive on the market. They cram electronics into a capsule with a semi-permeable membrane. Once swallowed, they measure your gut environment as the sensor moves through, pinging data to your smart phone. They have limited functionality so far, mostly measuring pH, temperature and whether you have taken your meds. However, researchers are pioneering new sensors that can detect a broader range of molecules and potentially identifying bacteria as they go.

Along with all of this technological progress, it is important for users to maintain awareness of what their IoB is doing, and be ready and able to intervene when necessary. In human factors speak, users need to maintain an appropriate degree of situational awareness and be prepared to seize and exercise supervisory control. Ignorance is not bliss, as has been proven time over time in cases where system automation has deprived users the situational awareness, and also the means, to deal with complex conditions and component failures.

The autonomous automobile is a useful analog here. Such vehicles can navigate to a destination while keeping in their lane, maintaining a proper speed, performing emergency stops, and more. But, special circumstances and the possibility of a sudden component failure demand that drivers are prepared to seize control. The same will be true of wearable and implanted devices that function correctly and automatically…until they don’t.

IoB devices will need to give users the information and control they need without demanding too much oversight. Therefore, IoB devices will need to have great user interfaces that have been validated to be safe, effective, and relatively easy to use. Otherwise, people will be overwhelmed in emergency scenarios, which in turn could lead to harm. Ultimately, the devices will need to fail safe.

MIchael WIklund and Richard Featherstone are General Manager and Research Director, respectively, at Emergo by UL's Human Factors Research & Design (HFR&D) division.

Learn more about Emergo by UL’s human factors engineering and usability services:

  • HFE user research for medical devices and IVDs
  • Human factors analysis for medical devices
  • Whitepaper: Wearables versus regulated medical devices in the US