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  • David McMillan
  • Connectivity

    Five ways you can already become a cyborg, one body part at a time

    Want to use your hand to prove your identity? Become a better skier without any work? Try this.

    There are now countless ways for us to augment our bodies, some as wince-worthy as implanting a chip under your skin or as simple as strapping on some computerized knee braces.

    We’ve put together a list to introduce you to some of the most interesting products that can help you upgrade yourself from head to toe—whether you’re interested in serious biohacking or just want to check out some cool wearable tech.

    Thing: VivoKey Mini 

    Creator: Amal Graafstra

    Wants to augment your: digital identity

    What it is: In 2013, When Amal Graafstra started selling implantable RFID technology, his customers were a niche group—mainly self-described biohackers. But in the past couple of years, he’s been getting more mainstream consumers interested in implanting electronics in their bodies.

    In hopes of appealing to all of these people, he’s making an NFC, or near-field communication, tag called a VivoKey Mini that can be implanted in your hand and will act as a secure token to help you do things like prove your identity when you log in to your online bank account—acting as part of a two-factor authentication process where you scan it with an NFC reader on a smartphone, for instance.

    How it works: After getting a VivoKey Mini implanted (it’s a cylinder, two millimeters in diameter and 12 millimeters long, that can be injected into your body), you’d need to scan it with the NFC reader on a smartphone, which would prompt you to install an app, Graafstra says. Then you could set up an identity profile with things like your name and photo, so anyone who scanned your hand with an NFC reader in the future could see this information.

    You’ll also be able to connect certain online services such as WordPress, Graafstra says, so you could scan the tag in your hand with your smartphone as part of the login process.

    To get this to work with, say, your bank or credit card company, Graafstra will have to forge partnerships; he says he’s in talks with some financial companies.

    Availability: An early version of the VivoKey Mini is expected to be released in late August or early September.

    Price: It is expected to cost $99.

    Tech expertise required (smartphone savvy, comfy coder, brilliant biohacker): Comfy coder.

    Commitment level (low, medium, high): High, since this will need to be implanted in your body (it will come in a syringe meant for injecting it). Graafstra says he’s connected to a network of professional body piercers who will be willing to insert these devices in people.  

    Thing: OpenAPS 

    Creator: Dana Lewis

    Wants to augment your: pancreas

    What it is: Lewis, who has type 1 diabetes, founded OpenAPS (also known as the Open Artificial Pancreas System), which helps people like her use an existing diabetes pump and continuous glucose monitor to automatically deliver insulin as their blood-sugar level changes. This kind of thing is just starting to hit the market in a single gadget but is not yet common, so OpenAPS aims to make it simple and inexpensive for people to build it themselves.

    OpenAPS offers free open-source software and instructions, along with hardware-buying guidance.

    How it works: Users first need two medical devices: a continuous glucose monitor and an insulin pump that can receive remote commands to adjust insulin dosages (OpenAPS suggests older Medtronic models). You also need a small Raspberry Pi computer, a wireless radio, and a battery.

    The computer wirelessly gathers data from the monitor and pump, determines whether you need more or less insulin to keep your blood sugar in a safe range, and sends that command back to the pump.

    Price: Assuming you have a compatible CGM and pump, it costs close to $200 to build your own artificial pancreas (that’s $139 for a computer board with a radio and display, $14 for a Raspberry Pi, $15 for a battery, and $20 for a case to keep it all together).

    Availability: Now available.

    Tech expertise required: Smartphone savvy.

    Commitment level: High. 

    Thing: AlterEgo

    Creator: Arnav Kapur

    Wants to augment your: chitchat and channel surfing

    What it is: AlterEgo, a research project created by Kapur, a grad student at MIT’s Media Lab, is a prototype of a gadget that sits on your face and lets you communicate silently with objects and other people. Kapur can use it to do things like change channels on his TV or order a pizza.

    How it works: The device’s electrodes track tiny electrical signals generated by your face and neck muscles when you silently read or talk to yourself. The signals are passed on wirelessly to a computer. The device also has bone-conduction headphones to give feedback and tell you (in a stilted, computerized voice) what anyone else who’s also wearing AlterEgo is silently saying to you.

    Availability: It’s still just a research project.

    Price: N/A

    Tech expertise required: Unclear.

    Commitment level: Medium (it means wearing a prominent gadget on your face.)  

    Thing: Robotic exoskeleton

    Creator: Tim Swift

    Augment your: Ski slope style

    What it is: Swift runs Roam Robotics, a startup that wants to make inflatable robotic exoskeletons to help people with all kinds of physical activities. The company’s first product fits around the knees and is aimed at skiers; it uses a combination of sensors, computing power, and balloons to let people ski longer and harder.

    How it works: Two devices that look like knee braces fit around your legs, strapping to your thighs at the top and your ski boots at the bottom. They both plug into a battery and air compressor, which are in a backpack on your back.

    As you ski, sensors in the leg braces track your body posture, and a computer connected to each brace uses this to figure out how much torque each leg should get (it’s delivered by inflating a small bladder on the side of each knee).

    Availability: The skiing product is expected to be available for rent this winter in or around Lake Tahoe, California, and Park City, Utah.

    Price: Swift estimates it will cost between $70 and $100 to rent the exoskeleton skiing system for a day. He expects to start selling a consumer product in 2020 for less than $2,000.

    Tech expertise required: Smartphone savvy.

    Commitment level: Medium. 

    Thing: IQbuds and IQbuds Boost

    Creator: David Cannington

    Augment your: Hearing

    What it is: Cannington is the cofounder of Nuheara, a startup whose wireless earbuds let you amplify some sounds (such as voices) and quiet others. The devices are meant for people who don’t need a hearing aid but have trouble hearing in noisy environments, Cannington says.

    How it works: The earbuds sync via Bluetooth with an iOS or Android smartphone app, which includes location-specific settings like “Restaurant,” “Street,” and “Plane.”

    Price: IQbuds Boost—a newer version, aimed at older users, that includes a hearing calibration process—cost $499, while IQbuds cost $299.

    Availability: The earbuds are available online, as well as in some Best Buy stores in Florida.

    Tech expertise required: Smartphone savvy.

    Commitment level: Low.

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