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We all know how well things turned out in David Cronenberg’s 1999 film eXistenZ...

Meet wetware, your next tech obsession

A discreet alternative to the tech frenzy for wearables, explore the world of the ‘implantables’ taking us that step closer to turning superhuman

Last year, a “brave idiot” made the news for implanting a computer under his skin without medical help. But he isn’t alone; fellow biohackers and wetware enthusiasts have been doing this for years. And while visible gadgets – think dorky-looking eyewear and headgear – can make people feel uncomfortable, there are no aesthetic concerns with implantables, as yet. While consumer wearables require a screen, often causing communication issues, further exacerbated by surveillance and privacy concerns. In contrast, implantables are far more discreet, remaining well in the domain of one’s own body (literally).

In spite of this, they certainly have their own set of emerging safety issues, from malicious bio-hacking to changing concepts of identity, and hypothetical “who watches the watchmen?” scenarios. While the invasiveness of implantables might seem daunting, the appeal lies in their integrated, invisible nature. Requiring less active user monitoring, though perhaps a good deal more faith in the people who made them. With the progress we’ve made in piezoplastics and biotech, we’re more stoked about the future of implantables than a glorified iSwatch. Our bodies are ready, but is the mind willing? Below, we select the most exciting advancements in wetware.


Project Underskin is a sub-dermal tattoo that uses touch to connect you with day-to-day objects in your immediate environment. It networks your everyday items, such as your credit card, iPhone, or a locked door, with the implant in your body. Instead of using smartphones to “bump” contact information, you could literally shake hands with someone to swap numbers and email addresses. Underskin also claims it’ll “glow intimately” when you’re with someone you love, which actually sounds a little creepy. NewDealDesign (also known as the company behind FitBit) hopes to push Project Underskin as a humanized response to critiques of implantable tech as cold, robotic gadgetry. At first glance, it sounds like a neat solution to streamlined modern life, but we’ll save our official judgment for later.


Researchers at Stanford University have created an ultrasound-powered piezoelectric chip that performs basic medical commands. This self-powering chip would be a tremendous godsend to medical implants, especially for neurological disorders. For now, the chip is strictly a prototype because the energy it produces isn’t enough to sate the needs of modern gadgetry. However, as researchers continue to develop and improve upon this tech; fertile imaginations can cook up a wealth of practical applications beyond the medical realm.


The nanochannel delivery system (or nDS) is an implantable remote-controlled device that allows doctors to deliver drugs to a subject at a controlled rate. The real kicker here is that the nDS will work on Earth as well as space. And while the practical uses of releasing drugs to people in orbit aren’t immediately applicable to us earthbound poors, the idea here is that the nDS can work across a really, really long distance. The endgame for remote drug delivery is basically telemedicine, which would reduce the costs racked up with hospitalisation and travel for treatment. With ongoing leaps and bound in privatized space travel, this could have a terrific impact on projects like Mars One, or at the very least, bring the reality of suborbital living just that little bit closer.


We’re already seeing cool new developments in smart lens tech thanks to promising partnerships between Novartis and Google. However, 2014 has been a banner year for eye implants, and we’re excited to (forgive the pun) see more. So far, the most well-known implant is the Argus II, which involves a small implant behind the retina and a wearable device that allows a blind person to perceive light and dark. With ongoing research in bionic eyes focusing on the ability to recognize faces and read large print, perhaps one day, they could borrow elements from the Camera Culture guys at MIT, whose aim is to give us superhuman vision. Now all we need is something for myopia…


In the world of extreme and near-improbable tech, DARPA holds the keys to the Jeep. So it’s no real surprise that it’s responsible for creating transparent graphene sensors that could revolutionize brain implants by enabling the literal transparency of what would otherwise be a taxing, delicate business. Brain implants are also breaking new ground — thanks to a groundbreaking new tech named NeuroBridge  a paralyzed man managed to move his wrist, making him one of the first wave of cyborgs. 


Earlier this year, a Korean pediatric neurosurgery professor created an artificial titanium skull implant with a 3D printer which reduces the risk of infection and other complications. The world of medical 3D printing is vastly different from sending off a paperweight design  it’s revolutionized the way in which doctors operate and maintain critical implants (ribs, facial bones – you name it) and drastically reduced surgery times and side effects.


Remote-controlled, implantable birth control is expected to hit the shelves around 2018. The implant can be turned on and off wirelessly, which is music to a lady’s ears, and can last up to sixteen (!!!!) years. Sold. This is all thanks to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, one of the best, most altruistic byproducts of tech culture. 


Moving beyond tiny cellular implants, we have full-on limb implants that defy simple categorisation as “prosthetics, which traditionally sit atop the skin". Now we can have entire bone-anchored bionic arm implants that fuse man and machine and work via mind control. A bionic bone, if you like, that is able to create a seamless connection between nerves and circuits. On a more analog front  as in, not functionally controlled by computers yet (they’re working on it) – there’s also the amazing work of Hugh Herr, who has revolutionised life for amputees (including himself). Focusing on next-gen prosthetics that use robotics to replace tendons and muscles in the lower leg. These aren’t just artificial limbs  they’re human enhancements that actually return 200 per cent of the body’s downward energy, and potentially “read” the ground ahead and recalibrate accordingly.


There’s a lot of it about, and a lot more to come. Here’s one favorite: industrial designer Naomi Kizhner has created a set of theoretical embeddable jewellery (arguably wearables) that fuel themselves on your blood. While this is certainly not going to be the last discussion piece on our thirst for energy, it is definitely one of the more compelling projects out there, as the jewellery is meant to be embedded in a person’s veins via “invasive gold and biopolymer devices.”


Of course, what all of this means is that we’re going to have a whole new playground for hackers to run wild. This means a whole new breed of hackers, encryption methods, ethical muck, and (hopefully somewhat effective) countermeasures against what is undoubtedly the most invasive breach one can imagine – a breach into one’s genetic identity. The US feds are currently investigating a cybersecurity breach (surely we need a better nomenclature system than cyber- everything, right?) into medical devices. But it won’t be long before we hear more about  wait for it – the Industrial Control Systems Cyber Emergency Response Team  the unit tasked with handling this sort of thing. Hopefully by then, they’ll have a cool acronym.