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Flexible Batteries And What's Next In Wearables

Professionals in wearables talk about the future of the global marketplace.

Last week, ECN brought together professionals in the field of wearables to talk about the future of the global marketplace. Dr. Will Whittow, Ph.D, senior lecturer at Loughborough University, Dr. Steven LeBoeuf of Valencell Inc., and Nick Langston, Jr., senior business development manager at TE Connectivity’s Wearables Lab, joined Editorial Director David Mantey to focus on the future of wearables and what barriers could prevent this technology from being widely adopted.

There are two major challenges to the widespread adoption of wearables and next-generation devices such those in progress at TE Connectivity’s Wearable Labs, the panelists said. The mature infrastructure is in place, Langston said, but getting data from the device to a place where it can be used is still a challenge.  Battery life is also a concern, since batteries need to be smaller and charge very rarely.

“A lot of use cases have been developed, but they’re not fully implemented in with the infrastructure,” LeBoeuf said. “I would say that the dream that I had when I started the company, of seeing people being able to live their lives with, say, the shirt they’re wearing or their headphones or their eyeglasses or whatever it is they’re wearing providing the feedback they need to improve their health, that’s still a few years away.”

The second challenge is social adoption, the panelists said. Consumers are still wary of products that integrate too much with their bodies, or are untested.

Fitness trackers are doing well, but, the panelists said, devices need to be able to tell people how to make positive changes in their health or behavior instead of simply reporting the facts about one’s body.

The volume of sensors requires some changes, too. Whittow cited data forecasting 10 trillion sensors in the market by 2027, not including RFID devices. In order to handle that much information, the industry needs to miniaturize antennas and examine how much bandwidth sending data away from a device will require. Or, data processing can be done on the device itself, if the battery life and a way to extract the data can be integrated.

LeBoeuf said that researchers at North Carolina State University’s National Science Foundation-funded ASSIST program are working on packaging for energy harvesting. The devices in the future might charge wirelessly as well. Langston and his colleagues at TE believe that if people wear a device integrated into their clothing, they shouldn’t have to plug it in.

Therefore, Langston and his team have looked into several methods of wireless charging. Magnetic induction, the kind used now to charge smartphones, seems the most viable. Methods using RF transmission or energy scavenging could run low-power devices like wearables as well, although they wouldn’t be as viable for more power-hungry laptops or tablets.

Most major brands want their devices to be waterproof too, Langston and LeBoeuf said.

“Everybody wants a device that’s sealed, that has no openings, so they can say it’s waterproof for the consumer electronics market but also so they can do different things with the shape and the form of it and try to start moving away from hard devices into soft things,” said Langston.

The TE Connectivity labs are currently working on deploying electric charging in a garment, using the piezo film they currently produce.

Key Elements of Product Design

Following from the conversation about wireless charging, LeBoeuf said that sensors with a high signal-to-noise ratio are also important, along with energy harvesting, processing, and charging.

Langston said that a customer with whom he worked on a sleep monitor wasn’t concerned about signal-to-noise ratio, and that Bluetooth’s BTLE standard is a good start when it comes to standards everyone in the industry can follow by default.

However, pulling a physiological signal out of noise can be a big problem when a customer is moving around instead of sleeping, LeBoeuf said.

“If you can design the sensor transduction mechanism itself to be inherently immune to motion artifacts, and environmental artifacts – which is especially problematic with some of the capacitive thread sensors because they get corroded, but then also with the optical sensors because of the sunlight – in making it to where that is not such an issue, that then allows you to use more of the precious little energy resource you have left towards things like getting the data off or storing the data, or having some buffer data,” LeBoeuf said.

The money in the wearables industry is in flexible electronics and flexible batteries, said Whittow. Extending the battery life in flexible devices is essential to popularizing them.  

LeBeauf and Langston both said that consumer electronics are the hottest part of the industry.

“When you look at the facts, the people who are making the money are the ones who are selling devices or marketing them, like FitBit for example, [or] Apple. And only a small percentage of their revenues are coming from anything else,” LeBeauf said.

However, Langston said he believes consumer protection and military utilization are the most financially advantageous segments.

Standards and Regulation

Governmental and organizational standards go hand-in-hand with the development of wearables, the panelists said. More consistent standards when it comes to biometrics also leads to greater security for the consumer, according to LeBoeuf.

Privacy is also a big issue – data needs to be informative, but people are wary of where and how it can be shared.

Langston said that he sees a generational difference in the way people perceive and want control over their personal data. The older generation doesn’t want to leave a trail of data on the grid. But, Langston said, “Kids who are coming up today really don’t expect much privacy; they’re putting everything on Facebook anyway.”

Information is currency, Mantey said, but Langston invited the panel to think about who it that currency benefits. Large companies like Facebook and Google could find value in data mining activity monitors for commercial purposes.

“One of the reasons Nike developed [the SportPlus, one of the first fitness bands] is to encourage people to run more so they could sell more shoes,” said LeBoeuf. Product integration could lead to hyper-personalized information travelling to people via their devices. For example, if a medical device detects that someone is hypertensive, it could give their data to doctors who treat hypertension.

The legal difference between health and fitness is tricky, Whittow said, with different legal definitions. The FDA has oversight over any company that makes a medical claim, but, LeBoeuf said, the organization has “liberalized” its attitude to mobile health in the last year. He also praised the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers for their set of standards for optical blood pressure monitors.

“I think the non-government agencies can come up with the tests and standards, but the government has to say ‘this is the standard that you have to pass’,” LeBoeuf said.

What’s Next?

Looking further ahead, the panelists discussed new types of interfaces and technologies. Might smartphones become obsolete in their time, and give way to some kind of wearable? Whittow’s colleague Katia Vega puts capacitor sensors into strands of hair in order to turn the hair into a circuit that can control an object such as a drone.

“In five years’ time we’re going to say [a smartphone] was so big, it was so heavy, so inflexible. I think we’re going toward flexible electronics. I think our phones are going to become more and more flexible, I think we’re going to be able to roll them up,” said Whittow.

Langston said that wearables with ubiquitous mobile cloud access will be able to track and advise on human behavior, suggesting that a user take a trip to a place they enjoy or advising them on their schedule.

However, Whittow said, the technology may move faster than the consumers. “It’s interesting to see that the public are very concerned about wearable technology,” he said, “and yet they’re quite used to holding a mobile phone next to their head for two hours a day.”

“This big battle is social understanding. Battery power is a really important thing. And just user interface and how easy it is to use.”

“It takes time for these things to evolve,” said Langston. “The key is not to violate social norms. And that means we’ve got a big problem in terms of how we package this stuff.”

Find the complete panel at ECN.

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