5 areas driving innovation in wearables

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Led by Fitbit activity sensors and the Apple Watch, IDC claims 21 million wearables were shipped in Q3 2015 – up 200 percent since the same period last year. However, wearable technology means much more than Apple Watches or Fitbits; innovation across the sector is intensifying, as you’d expect from an industry CCS Insights expects will grow 64 percent across the next three years, becoming a $25 billion business by 2019.

We take a look at five areas that are driving innovation in wearables. They include the materials, sensors and networking solutions, along with software to make sense of them.

1. Detecting vital signs

Look around and you’ll find sensor-laden Athos smart shirts (compatible with smartphones) designed to measure specific muscles, effort and breathing rates, or even Reebok Checklight head impact detectors, which warn athletes when they’re at risk of concussion and other impact injuries. To bring all of these systems together, wearable solutions consultancy, Moonlab, is developing SoftSpot, a wearable sensor system that monitors biometric and environmental data and connects to other devices using smartphones.

2. Preventative cures

Health researchers at Linköping University in Sweden are working on infrastructure, specifically ways in which the human body can be connected and monitored. They have developed skin-surface and implanted sensors all connected by an “in-body intranet” that links the devices while also keeping them private. These solutions work with others in development, from drug delivery bandages to heart attack prevention tools.

These next-generation wearables augment the human, monitoring for signs of weakness and disease and enabling users to take steps before they become ill. MIT, for example, is developing a shirt that monitors for heart attacks and then administers CPR when one takes place, though this product will take a decade to reach market.

3. Generating power on the fly

Developed as part of the EU-sponsored Powerweave program, researchers at Brunel University in London have figured out how to produce supercapacitator thread capable of being made into wearable textiles, which is capable of storing and supplying enough power for devices like smartphones and wearables.

“Supercapacitors are already ubiquitous as back-up power in phones, PCs and tablets,” explained Professor David Harrison from the project. “They store energy without a chemical reaction so can be charged and discharged almost indefinitely. But in thread form they have never before been able to break the 1V barrier.  What we have done is show we can produce a multi-layered structure with two sequential capacitive layers capable of producing up to 2V. Breaking the 1V threshold is important as in the real world we work on the voltage of common batteries – 1.5V.”

4. Carbon nanotubes and new materials

In another recent innovation, scientists at the University of Manitoba in Canada figured out how to create a stretchable wearable body sensor from chewing gum. The gum was chewed for 30 minutes, cleaned with ethanol and added to a special sensing material made from carbon nanotubes. This created a flexible sensor capable of tracking body motion even when they were bent or twisted. It can also track moisture, so could potentially be used to track breathing.

As for those wearable fitness devices, those things seem increasingly dated as Chaotic Moon is developing Tech Tats, smart stick on temporary tattoos capable of monitoring vital signs, tracking GPS and handling credit card information, and using the smartphone to transmit the data.

5. Military innovation

Even more invention seems likely to emerge from the military and defense sectors. Military technologists are keen to harness wearable sensors for battlefield deployments, and are working with leading technology firms in order to achieve this.

The Pentagon recently announced plans to work with Boeing, Harvard and 160 others within the newly announced Flexible Hybrid Electronic Institute focusing on wearable solutions for military use. Members of this alliance have already developed a wireless temperature sensor that weighs just 1.6mg and is powered by the wireless network it is connected to; as well as a new coating designed to make LEDs, solar cells and sensors significantly more light efficient.

Looking forward, the future for wearables is increasingly exciting. As Jake Waxenburg, Athos Director of Brand Strategy puts it: “The clothing, the sensors, all these things that have been built – the challenge is, how do you iterate on the app and turn data into actual answers? Where it can go from here is astounding.”

Read how Orange Business Services can help your company successfully develop and design solutions for the Internet of Things. And find out how Orange delivered diabetic monitoring for cyclists as part of the mHealth Grand Tour.