Wearables are so 2015. Will insertable devices get under your skin?

I gave a 10 minute talk at UX Austrlaia 2016 on my PhD work — Insertables. The audio is available on Sound Cloud (below) and this post covers most of what I talk about.

Over the last century the body has emerged as a platform for devices, including internal medical devices and wearable fitness monitors. Within the last decade individuals have begun voluntarily inserting non-medical devices into their bodies. What are people putting in their bodies and why? Are insertables the next thing?

What the hell are insertables?

This is always the follow up question I get asked when I tell people my PhD topic is “insertables”.

An insertable device is something voluntary, non-permanat, that is continated within the boundaries of the human body, — in, through, or underneath the skin. It is characterised by agency and choice, and therefore used for non-medical purposes.

Why Insertables not Implantable?

We use the term insertable over implantable to distinguish these from medical devices, and to include devices which can be easily removed and replaced (including by the individual).

Digital piercings are neither wearable nor implant

For example, if we put sensors onto body piercings they would become Smart-Piercings, insertable devices, as they go through the skin they cannot be considered a wearable, but aren’t implantable either.


In winter 2014 I took to carrying my Myki (Melbourne transit card) inside my glove, so that I would be less likely to lose it, and for easy access, rather than fumbling through my wallet when wanting to touch on or off. Reaching my hand out to touch the sensor felt like a natural user interaction. I thought this is going to happen. This is the future.

I originally started looking in to gloves with little pockets for cards, but a standard credit card is too big to hold comfortable on a hand my size. Putting a chip inside your hand is way cooler anyway, and a quick google search reealed people were already doing it.

From outside to inside the body

Many implantable medical devices (IMD’s) started out as luggable, after technological advancements became wearable, and then implantable.

Evolution of the pace maker from a luggable device, to the IMD we know today

For example, the first pacemaker was a large luggable device bought to the patient. With advancements, the battery became small enough to wear on a belt, and now the device, battery and all, are inserted fulled into the body in a fairly routine procedure.

We see this trajectory in many health devices.

Insulin pumps & prosthese are becoming internal

Implantable or Insertable?

Vision and hearing aids beging to blur the line between implantable and insertable devices as they are medical in nature, but optional. Individuals are also able to chose between wearable and insertable counterparts — whichever they prefer (e.g. glasses or contacts).

Some medical devices are optional

People aren’t going to voluntarily put devices inside their bodies

Women have been putting stuff in their bodies for a while — we have insertable forms of non-life threatening health and wellbeing products.

We have a plethora of choices of what we want. What is it today: wearable, swallowable, injectable, or insertable? Contraceptives exists as wearable prophylactics or insertable in the form of female condoms, diaphragms, intrauterine devices (IUDs) and sub-dermal contraceptive implants.

Contraceptive Options — wearable, swallowable, injectable or insertable

We also have a choice between wearable and insertable menstural aids — wahtever we are more comfortable with. And now, incontinence aids, women dont have to wear diapers anymore. We have an insertable counterpart.

Everything I’ve shown so far has been an insertable product, but they are becoming insertable devices.

Insertable Devices

MicroCHIPS is an RFID contraceptive been worked on at MIT with seed funding form the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation. This would give women the ability to switch on and off their contraception between pregnancies, without needing to remove and re-insert a device.

Loon Cup is an IoT smart menstural cup — successfully kickstarted, so obviously there’s some market there. It also proves that bluetooth can go through the walls of the vagina.

Loop Cup

BabyPod. Insertable speakers to play music to your unborn feoutus. This is a real product.

It’s not all vaginas — we of course have the Kinsa IoT Smart rectal thermometer.

Kinsa IoT thermometer

Why does it have a cable?!

So what are people inserting?

  • RFID / NFC Microchips
  • Magnets for sensorial exension
  • Bespoke devices for experimentation where individuals are their own guinea pigs

RFID & NFC Microchips

These are small, size of a grain of rice, devices inserted using a large guage syringe like a pet microchip, or body piercing, would be. They leave a small scar, barely noticeable to the naked eye, and once they are in they inserted they are insivible to the casual observer.

Where do they put them?

The insertion position selected is generally based on use, with form following function.

The standard position for microchips is in the webbing of the hand. The webbing is away from vital tissues and organs, is squishy so provides protection for the chip, and affords an easy and natural interaction with sensors and phones.

UX & Delight

What’s delightful about getting a needle? Well, it’s 5 seconds of pain and then you don’t have to do yout three tap check every time you leave a room.

  1. Phone
  2. Wallet
  3. Keys

Have I got them? I’m going to leave this room. Phone, wallet, keys.

Have you ever …

  • Forgotten your work pass?
  • Forgotten your Myki or transit card?
  • Lost your credit card?
  • Locked keys inside the car?
  • Gotten locked out of your house ?

Getting locked outside sucks. It’s really stressful, and it’s even worse when you’ve stepped out side for a moment and the door blows shut.

I’m in a nighty, there’s something on the stove, the baby’s inside. What do you do? You call a locksmith, you try and climb in through a cat-flap or crawl in through a window. Having an NFC compatible lock means that the door slams behind you, and you have that initial panic and then remember this doesn’t matter for you, you can’t forget your keys they’re always with you.

So we see this luggable, wearable, insertable trajectory again. Replacing luggable keys, and wearable dongles, with insertables. It seems like such a small thing, yeah you can open your door lock. Big deal. But you never have to ahve that stress again.

As one participant puts it:

I was super-duper thankful that I went through this small tiny piece of pain for the guarantee that my key would be with me as long as I have my hand, which I’ve never ever forgotten. It only takes one or two times of making a bullshit trip that’s already too long and having to drive the whole way back home, or deal with it for the day, to make you realize like oh a small pinch and this is solved? Yeah, please give me the pinch.

The chips “can do anything, you just have to program it to”. People are using microchips to automate mundane takes such as launching Facebook and even Pokemon Go, share your contact details and replace buisness cards. Basically anything your phone can do can be programmed to do when you scan your chip or any if this then that (IFTT) style command. When I scan this text my wife I’m on the way home, send an email, share my contact detail etc.

Insertables offer a way to automatically and seamlessly launch applications without need to stop and interact with devices, other than to hold their hand to a reader, making them natural user interfaces (NUIs) with intuitive and seamless interactions.

For example, one participant set up the coordinates of this lab

It made everything easier, I didn’t have to type things in or interact with the interfaces, I just had to run my hand over my phone and I was on my way.

Participants had eliminated keys, dongles and external devices by relegating these input and storage functions to insertable devices. You try and minimize the number of things they worry about in the day — one partricipant refered to this as the tamagotchi effect, managing keys, wallets or purses and phones that can be forgotten, making sure wearables are charged and remembering to put them back on after you’ve taken them off. Users of insertables no longer want to be bothered by wearables — they are frustrating. They opt in to insertables. For them, the benefits out weighed any pain or discomfort. They didn’t want to manage keys, wallets or purses and phones they could forget, take wearables on and off and make sure they’re charged. Some found wearables uncomfortable, and didn’t even wear their wedding rings.

It is true, however, that not all users will be satisfied with inserting devices into their bodies. Gluing RFID tags onto nails is far less controversial and threatening for the wider populous. Wearable and insertable devices can coexist alongside one another with users being able to choose whichever they are comfortable with, and what meets their needs.


Does it hurt?

Not really. No more than a piercing or blood test.

Can the government track me?

Nope. These are passive microchips that have no GPS capabilities or batteries. They can only be read when in front of the correct sensor, with a read range of one centimetre as best — in most cases you need to pyshically touch the reader with your hand. You probably already voluntarily carry a GPS device with a large battery that you charge daily (your phone), so if they’re going to track you, they’ll use that.

What if someone cuts off my hand?

That’s pretty extreme, reconsider the kinds of people you are associating with. It’s much easier to break down your door than to lop off your hand.

Do you have one?

Yes. After researching this for over a year I got my first chip in May 2016. I got my second in November 2016. Blog post about this is in the pipeline.

Can you feel it?

Not from inside my hand since it healed (a few days after insertion). I can feel it when I touch the outside of my hand with a finger.

May YOU feel it?

I made this judgement case by case!



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Kayla J Heffernan

Head of UX. Passionate about solving ambiguous problems with solutions that are accessible and inclusive. I write every couple of months about design.