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What is the Internet of Bodies (IoB), and why should you care?

By Andrei Klubnikin, Innovation Analyst
Published on

The Internet of Bodies (IoB) term was coined in 2016. It describes connected devices that monitor the human body, collect physiological, biometric, or behavioral data, and exchange information over a wireless or hybrid network. Standalone mobile apps that analyze physical activity and health-related data, such as heartbeat, blood pressure, and sleep cycles, can also be considered part of the IoB cohort. However, we’ve deliberately excluded them from our classification to avoid confusion with mHealth.

The Internet of Bodies falls under the broader IoT solutions umbrella. But as the name implies, IoB devices ensure an even closer synergy between humans and gadgets than connected thermostats, refrigerators, and curtains.

IoB products come in various forms, ranging in complexity from smartwatches and fitness trackers, which are used by approximately 21% of Americans, to implantable insulin delivery systems, ingestible sensors, and brain stimulation gadgets.

The benefits of implementing IoB solutions at scale include better diagnosis and treatment of health conditions, personalized insurance plans, increased productivity, and improved public safety, to name a few.

But the growing Internet of Bodies adoption could also result in unauthorized access to sensitive information by third parties, income-based health disparities, and the installment of a global surveillance state.

This article will take a closer look at IoB benefits and applications in the healthcare and wellness domains and identify privacy and security concerns surrounding the Internet of Bodies and medical IoT solutions. So let’s dive right in!

What is the Internet of Bodies exactly?

Just like other members of the Internet of Things family, IoB devices operate on four levels:

  • Hardware with limited or advanced computing capabilities. IoB devices are enhanced with embedded software and an array of sensors measuring human-generated data (step count, pulse, oxygen levels, hematological parameters, facial features, or daily routines.) Depending on a gadget’s processing power, sensor data can be stored and analyzed either on the device or in the cloud. It is possible to combine invasive and wearable IoB devices into a wireless body area network (WBAN).

  • Networks, which can be wireless or hybrid. Connectivity technologies allow IoB systems to securely exchange data with each other and a central hub at preset intervals or in real time.

  • Back-end infrastructure, which encompasses data storage, analytics, and visualization solutions. When it comes to IoB, the “infrastructure” team can also refer to a support system ensuring a gadget’s uninterrupted operation, such as a team of healthcare specialists ready to intervene should a personal help button be pressed.

  • End-user applications that allow individuals to configure IoB devices, connect them to other hardware and apps, and view sensor data over a given period. These apps often run on mobile devices, although voice interfaces are also getting traction in the Internet of Things domain.

what is internet of bodies IoB

To classify as the Internet of Bodies product, connected devices must perform one or both of these functions:

  • Gather health, behavioral, or biometric data

  • Alter the human body’s functions

Most IoB products come in direct contact with the human body, are physically attached to it, or, as in the case of ingestible and implantable devices, are swallowed or surgically inserted into a patient’s system.

Subsequently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) heavily regulates the development, manufacturing, and use of the Internet of Bodies solutions. Even consumer wearables, which previously were not considered medical devices unless manufacturers labeled them so, now often require FDA clearance. While this might slow down the launch of certain IoB products and features, such as the oximeter functionality introduced in Apple Watch when the pandemic struck, the decision also prevents flawed devices from entering the market and causing damage to people’s health.

Examples of IoB products

For your convenience, we’ve divided the Internet of Bodies solutions into two categories — i.e., consumer-grade and medical devices.

Consumer IoB devices

Internet of bodies devices
Connected home solutions
  • Security cameras and door locks with face recognition capabilities

  • Voice-controlled smart home devices

  • Automatic pill dispensers

  • Hearing aids

  • Indoor navigation systems for the visually impaired

  • In-home remote monitoring systems for the elderly and patients with chronic conditions

Fitness devices
  • Wearable physical activity trackers, including innovative accessories

  • Fitness mirrors with computer vision functionality

  • Connected fabrics and apparel

  • Training and weight measuring equipment enhanced with sensors

Wellness technology
  • Baby tech solutions: camera and sensor-based monitors, smart cribs, intelligent baby formula makers, and connected body temperature thermometers and nebulizers

  • Femtech products: smart pads, tampons, and menstruation cups; connected bras and breast cups, hardware-based fertility trackers, pelvic floor training tools

  • Vitals monitoring devices: wearables for heart rate, blood pressure, and oxygen monitoring

  • Diabetes management systems: smart glucose meters, wearable insulin pumps, and sensor-infused medication storage devices

Medical IoB devices

smart hospital examples
Smart hospital solutions
Implantable and ingestible devices
  • Organ systems: heart implants, artificial pancreas systems, smart stents, cochlear implants for individuals with hearing loss, artificial retina implants

  • IoT-based prosthetic limb systems

  • Neurological IoB solutions: brain-computer interfaces (BCI) with implantable sensors, deep brain stimulation solutions, seizure monitors

  • Digital pills for non-invasive diagnostic procedures and medication intake monitoring

How the Internet of Bodies revolutionizes healthcare

Although the Internet of Bodies can transform nearly every industry, healthcare professionals are the immediate beneficiaries of the IoB revolution.

The advantages of adopting IoB products in medical care span:

  • 24/7 patient monitoring. Sensor and camera-based IoT devices allow caregivers to spot the slightest changes in patients’ physiological data, anticipating their decline and taking immediate action in emergency cases. Additionally, IoB technologies help reduce physical interactions between patients and medical personnel, thus preventing contagious diseases from spreading.

  • Non-invasive diagnosis. While sensor data collected by a smartwatch can itself provide valuable insights into a patient’s past, current, and future health conditions, IoB also offers a variety of tools for non-invasive and highly efficient medical diagnosis. Camera-based ingestible pills, for example, serve as a viable alternative to gastroscopy and colonoscopy. A sleek wearable gadget worn at the lower part of the ribcage can monitor lung function and flag abnormalities early on. And by analyzing data collected through wearable sweat sensors, physicians can diagnose genetic disorders and better treat diabetes.

  • Improved quality of life for patients with chronic conditions. Unlike wearables, which merely collect data, implantable and embedded IoB products can change and restore the body’s functions that have been affected by physical trauma or disease. Some examples of such devices include connected pacemakers that transmit data to a dedicated mobile app, microelectronic retina prostheses returning partial vision to people with retinal diseases, and automated insulin delivery systems monitoring blood sugar levels in real time.

  • Precision medicine. IoB devices could help healthcare professionals identify recurring patterns in health data and devise personalized medicine and treatment plans tailored to the needs of a particular patient or patient group. For this purpose, electronic health records (EHRs) could be augmented with sensor data and analyzed using artificial intelligence algorithms.

  • Personalized health insurance plans. The data obtained from the Internet of Bodies products allows health insurance companies to adopt a more granular approach to risk profiling and optimize insurance plans based on an individual’s medical history, occupation, and lifestyle. Besides driving patient engagement and encouraging users to pursue a healthy lifestyle, the growing adoption of IoB solutions in medical insurance could reduce hospitalization rates and cut claims processing and administrative costsby up to 40%.

A rundown of IoB challenges and risks — and ways to address them

Privacy

In addition to users’ whereabouts, IoB devices can track various body parameters, such as cardiac rhythms, sleep patterns, and menstrual cycles. And it’s not completely clear who can access and use this information.

The biometric data captured by an implantable cardiac device, for example, could serve as evidence in disputable criminal cases, like the infamous Ross Compton lawsuit. In 2016, the police obtained information from Mr. Compton’s cardiac pacing devices when suspicions around whether a critically ill man could escape a fire while neatly packing his belongings into a suitcase had arisen.

Another example comes from Amazon. The company’s questionable treatment of employees during the pandemic hardly comes as a surprise following the introduction of arm motion trackers for warehouse workers. The intrusive technology would potentially allow Amazon to detect idling employees and collect personal information, such as the frequency of their bathroom breaks.

A comprehensive legal framework is necessary to establish crystal-clear guidelines for collecting, analyzing, and using physiological, behavioral, and biometric data produced by IoB devices. Until then, the Internet of Bodies vendors are expected to comply with HIPAA, FTC, FIPPs, FCRA, and GLBA regulations.

Security

Being part of the larger Internet of Things family, IoB devices may contain the very same security vulnerabilities as compromised baby monitors talking in weird voices and hacked CCTV cameras that fall victim to malware attacks and attempt to bring the whole Internet down. These vulnerabilities may spana cumbersome software updates installation process, hard-coded and easy-to-guess passwords, the use of insecure or outdated software and hardware components, and a failure to encrypt data traversing the network, among others. And while it literally won’t kill you if your fitness tracker joins a newly formed botnet, a hacked cardiac implant or insulin pump is a totally different story.

To prevent businesses, cybercriminals, and foreign governments from accessing sensitive data and launching high-profile cyberattacks on the US IT infrastructure, the FDA must devise a comprehensive IoB cybersecurity framework, which could be based on the corresponding framework developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Additionally, the FDA could impose stricter security requirements on IoT companies from the fitness and wellness segments.

Ethics

Without proper regulations, individuals who use IoB devices may not fully own biometric data. In addition, when implemented in public settings like schools and hospitals, the Internet of Bodies solutions might inadvertently monitor other people surrounding the user, which violates their privacy. And as more healthcare providers and insurance companies incorporate wearable data into treatment plans and health coverage, individuals with lower incomes and limited access to technology may end up missing out on IoB benefits.

One way to tackle these problems could be to conduct extensive research on IoB risks and benefits and make the information publicly available, thus filtering out the marketing hype. Closer collaboration between policymakers and device manufacturers could also help address data privacy concerns and make IoB products more affordable.

What's in store for the Internet of Bodies solutions?

The pandemic sparked the general public’s interest in digital healthcare solutions, and healthcare providers have followed suit. Driven by telehealth, remote patient monitoring, and healthcare analytics solutions, the digital health market is on track to top $220 billion by 2026.

And it’s only a matter of time before the Internet of Bodies goes mainstream too.

On the one hand, we’re witnessing the emergence and at-scale implementation of innovative networking technologies, including satellite Internet, Wi-Fi 6, and 5G. The latter, for instance, could potentially support up to one million devices per square kilometer (up from 4,000 devices per square kilometer for 4G networks.)

On the other hand, we could soon expect greater interoperability between IoT and IoB devices, which will exchange data in a unified format and at a faster speed. Several critical steps, such as the establishment of the global oneM2M initiative, have already been made in this direction.

All of this would create next-gen cyber-physical systems where connected thermostats feed off data collected through sensors embedded into smart apparel, automatically adjust their temperature settings, and notify an endocrinologist if glucose concentration in your sweat goes up.

TABLE OF CONTENTS
What is the Internet of Bodies exactly?Examples of IoB productsHow the Internet of Bodies revolutionizes healthcareA rundown of IoB challenges and risks — and ways to address themPrivacySecurityEthicsWhat's in store for the Internet of Bodies solutions?
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