Health by design: Wearable tech

06 Sep 2018

Author: Ruby Lohman

Photography: Supplied


Designer Leah Heiss is destigmatising medical devices by using cutting-edge technology to create beautiful, high-performing ‘wearables’. These include a world-first rechargeable hearing aid inspired by precious stones.
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Can a hearing aid ever be something to be desired? That’s the question Melbourne-based designer Leah Heiss grappled with in creating the award-winning hearing aid Facett. How to shift the focus from disability to desirability?

It took 130 prototypes. But, in 2018, her exhaustive retesting and remodelling was rewarded with Australia’s Good Design Award of the Year.

Heiss created the geometric, faceted device for Blamey Saunders hears, a profit-for-purpose hearing aid company, and took inspiration from the mineralogy collection at Melbourne Museum. Facett is both beautiful and user-friendly: instead of requiring tiny batteries that can be difficult to replace, it is rechargeable and clicks together with magnets.

“It’s quite revolutionary in an industry that is traditionally conservative,” Heiss says.

The designer thinks of her work as creating ‘emotional technologies’; wearable healthcare devices made using human-centred design principles. Empathy is everything.

“The tech isn’t really what it’s about – it’s actually understanding people’s emotional experience of being well and unwell, and how we can use technology in an interesting way to help them be better in the world,” she says.

Facett is available Australia-wide, and with design registrations in the EU and the US, Blamey Saunders hears is now investigating international markets.

In 2015, Heiss brought beauty and comfort to heart health with the Smart Heart necklace, a long-wear cardiac monitor neckpiece that collects, stores and remotely transmits data. Designed to replace the bulky Holter monitor, it was developed in collaboration with St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne, RMIT University and the Nossal Institute for Global Health, and features a conductive textile band with sensors woven through it.

While it has yet to be commercialised, the neckpiece has generated new ideas and conversations globally around what is possible, and it informs the new biosignal sensor projects with conductive textiles that Heiss is exploring.

The Smart Heart necklace and Facett will be featured at this year’s RECIPROCITY Design Liège in Belgium, an international triennale of design and social innovation. They will also be shown at a host of other international events, adding to an impressive list of previous exhibitions in Europe, Asia and Australia.

Next-generation wearables

Heiss conceived the designs for Smart Heart and Facett as part of her PhD at RMIT on the design of emotional technologies and wearable health tech. She had already completed a Master of Design at RMIT’s Spatial Information Architecture Laboratory, an innovative, transdisciplinary design and research lab where she developed augmented garments intended to facilitate empathy through sensing and transmitting heartbeat over distance.

It was during a year spent with Nanotechnology Victoria in 2007 that Heiss caught the world’s attention with her Diabetes Jewellery project. Using a nano-engineered patch with up to 10,000 micro-needles, the technology enables pain-free delivery of insulin to the body.

“That was when I started to think about wearables not just in an experiential, ephemeral way, but for health and wellbeing, and the bringing together of nanotechnologies and intimate scale devices and jewellery,” she says.

The Diabetes Jewellery project generated huge interest globally, with articles syndicated to 37 countries, and engendered a greater understanding of what people with diabetes deal with every day.

Heiss, a pioneer in the wearable healthcare space, brings a decidely Australian sensibility to a revolutionary and relatively young industry.

“The way we go about tech [in Australia] is quite different – we’re quite disruptive,” she says. “We just give it a go, test it out, really apply ourselves in an interesting way. I think we’re not hampered by history, we don’t have to say ‘it’s always been done that way’ … We can be quite entrepreneurial and innovative.”

Empowering through invention

Heiss’s interest in this kind of work was sparked at an early age by her grandfather, an orthopaedic shoemaker who made custom footwear for people with disabilities.

“He had this wonderful story where he made this gorgeous pair of shoes for a woman who’d never been able to dance, because of a disability,” she says.

Heiss was also inspired by her creative father, an electronics expert who set up a metal and wood workshop and a small photography lab at home.

“I was always very experimental,” Heiss says. “My dad was really like an inventor, so we would prototype and make things and test them, and if they didn’t work we’d refine them. There was this sense that you could always cobble something together and test it out.”

Heiss has never lost that drive to experiment and create, only today it is coupled with a vision to improve people’s quality of life and empower those with health issues or disabilities to reclaim agency.

“There’s very little attention or design focus being put towards people who actually have disabilities or are in the aged care sector,” she says.

“If you design cleverly enough, you can let people be what they want to be. They don’t have to stand out. Unless they want to, and then they can choose what they stand out for.”

Read more about Leah Heiss.