WEARABLES – THE NEW ‘NEXT BIG THING’
The hype around wearable’s is increasing and there is a growing belief that they represent a rich new market. Smartphone’s are maturing and the technology world is casting around for new ways to monetize. Enhancing mobile experiences by linking them with wearables, may be the ‘next big thing’ the market is looking for.
Much of the early buzz, is centred on objects like activity trackers, smart-glasses, and smartwatches. Such devices, whilst interesting, are merely scratching the surface of where the technology is headed. Many of the most radical advances are still in laboratories.
Current wearable textile designs already incorporate traditional silicon-circuits. These have poor flexibility, are brittle to the point of breakage and environmentally unfriendly. They are unsuited to many use-cases.
The industry is awaiting the arrival of truly flexible-circuit boards. Strong enough to withstand the demands of clothing and flexible enough to contort with skin. Bendable electronics, will allow for a new range of applications, many of which are impossible to achieve using conventional methods.
In 2013, researchers at the University of Tokyo, demonstrated a circuit-board 2-microns thick, manufactured on rolls of one-micron plastic film. The circuits are one-fifth the size of a sheet of kitchen-wrap. They have a bend radius of 5 microns and can be folded, without breaking.
Pioneering work is also being conducted at the University of Illinois, by Prof. John A. Rogers. Using nano and molecular scale fabrication techniques, silicon and carbon nanotubes are sliced, into ultra-thin flexible sheets. The nano scale membrane is then bonded, to a pre-stretched silicone rubber. When laid on top of the substrate, the circuit forms a ‘wavy geometry’ and produces a finished electronic, with incredible elasticity and flexibility.
Rogers calls the field he is inventing, an “epidermal electronic system” (EES). The circuits can be placed discreetly onto the skin and will bend, deform and stretch to fit its surface. This opens up entirely new classes of device for use in locations both inside ,and outside of the body. Rogers foresees, that eventually, such devices, placed directly onto human organs, will allow for radical breakthroughs in medical understanding, monitoring and treatment.
Rogers has demonstrated other applications, including remote control of a model helicopter. Using only arm movements, the craft is directed to take-off, fly and land. The demonstration uses an electronic epidermal ‘tattoo’ which is water-soluble, fully functional and flexes with the body.
The soluble nature of these circuits,will create other new modes of use:
- Implantable devices that monitor healing function and then dissolve once their useful period has ended.
- Environmental sensors, that gather information from an environmental spill and then dissolve once their work is complete.
- A smartphone that eliminates itself once its useful lifecycle has ended. Solving a potential hazardous waste stream.
The ability to bend electronic circuits signals a game-changing shift in the way we interact with machines. It makes possible intimate biological and environmental applications allowing technology into places where rigid circuits can never be used. Bio-electronics mimic the natural contortions of our biology, and their stretchability allows them to conform to any surface. Such properties, will radically blur the distinctions between our bodies and circuitry.