I recently attended two interesting VLAB panel discussions on “Wearable Devices, The Next Mobile Platform” and “The Uploaded Life: Personal Evolution Through Self-Tracking.”

VLAB, a group that meets at Stanford University, is dedicated to promoting the growth and success of high-tech entrepreneurial ventures by connecting people, ideas, and technology. These two panels helped to crystallize my understanding of some trends in personal tools and medical devices as they transition from mechanical/optical to electromechanical to electronic/MEMS implementations.

One trend is the replacement of mechanical tools like watches, glasses, or scales with electronic ones. The panelists’ companies talked about how either wrist or goggle devices that were once mechanical are now electronic. Two examples, were FitBit and Jawbone’s UP, which cater to the sports and exercise market. Both open the door to higher levels of analysis, because once you have the historical medical or exercise data in an electronic format, you can now apply CPU processing power to filter the information for trends and context to trigger alarms and alerts. With this data it is even possible to create new views or pictures that combine multiple sensor readings and other types of information for additional views and insights. This information can also be aggregated for populations so that, as Sean Murphy once said, “a picture is worth a thousand CPU hours.”

Another trend is the transition of cameras from optical to digital, enabling very sophisticated processing that can merge multiple images into a single image that can be inspected and manipulated. For example digital processing of multiple views can build a 360 degree image of an object that users can rotate and examine from all sides. Multiple images can also be merged into a timeline or natural history of a condition over time. One example of processing different kinds of images to achieve a better diagnostic platform are applications that can merge still photographs, X-Rays, MRI, and ultrasound of a knee to enable a more accurate assessment of the root causes of a medical condition and prognoses for different treatment options.

A third trend is devices and appliances that make collecting personal health and medical information for subsequent analysis and comparison very easy. A company that collects health data in a personal web page found that most people continued monitoring their data and half of those had a significant weight reduction, because the data was presented in a fun way. In contrast three studies of Weight Watchers found that 3% had a significant reduction of weight in two years. It is yet another example where capturing data and additional analysis is impacting peoples’ lives.

These examples highlight the benefits of converting traditional mechanical and optical tools into electronic implementations. Once you can capture and store the data, it is now possible to apply additional computer processing and develop higher levels of insight.