From rigid to mobile
Until recently computing and internet connections were limited to stationary, portable and hand-held devices, such as smart phones or tablets. These are generally rigid, offer limited interaction between devices and are highly battery dependent. Over the past couple of years wearable devices have brought computing and the Internet much closer to the body. Wearables now come in many shapes and have in common that they are always on, collecting data with the aim to improve how we interact and benefit from our environment.
From on-body to in-body
Wearable computing has long been a staple of sci-fi movies. Over the coming years we are likely to see fundamental changes in how we interact with humans and the digital world. Below is a brief overview of what’s in store:
Accessory - today
For the past two or three years accessory type wearable devices have being commercialized on a massive scale. They sport low-power consumption and provide ongoing connectivity. While some of them rely on smart phones for data collection and interaction, increasingly these devices are stand-alone. They sense and share data in the cloud in an effort to enhance our well-being or analyze interactions with our surroundings. Ultimately it is expected that they will be able to influence our decision making (see also article by Shawn DuBravac in this e-tech).
Textiles – 2017
While a couple of manufacturers already present textiles that contain sensors and offer connectivity, broad adoption will take another two to three years. In addition to playful interconnectivity, temperature and gas sensors in professional textiles, such as for firefighters or military personnel, have already been partially deployed. Ever slimmer and smaller sensors, LED lights, printable and other electronics are driving this market. What started out with scintillating lights as a fashion statement will deliver useful functionalities as part of our everyday clothing.
Patchable – 2020
Skin patchable devices are still mostly in the laboratory. To be successful on the body, they need to be flexible, twistable, stretchable, breathable and ultrathin to smoothly adapt to movements and adhere to the skin. They will also need to be made of bio-stable materials that are able to resist the harsh mechanical and environmental operating conditions of the human or animal body. Anything that is worn on the skin will need to be non-toxic and bio-compatible.
Implantable – 2025
Implantable connected devices will open a whole new dimension to healthcare and monitoring but also bring increased challenges. Because they are implanted in the body, concerns about safety and power consumption will be top of the chart. These devices will need to be ultra-light weight, self-charging (changing batteries in-body is difficult to impossible), safe and inert, while resisting and adapting to a largely hostile environment for electronics: the acids, fluids, gases and bacteria in the human body.
Wires, conductors, insulators, semiconductors, connectors and packages will all need to be made from mechanically and environmentally stable materials such as polymers, carbon, thin oxides and metal/polymer composites. Many will be nanosized.
Wearable devices will be used in a great number of different environments to achieve a broad range of outcomes.
Lights and decorative elements are used as embellishments that can be turned on or off; react to environmental stimuli or to the emotions of the wearer.
Wearable devices in this space are used to facilitate all forms of social interactions. Typically they come in the shape of jewellery, watches or items of clothing. They offer voice, text, email, multimedia and/or social media functionalities but can also give expression to touch and hugs.
While at first glimpse similar to devices used in communication in terms of functionalities, here the focus is on gaming, virtual reality, optimized learning, real-time streaming, HUD (heads-up-displays) usually in the form of glasses.
A wide array of wearable devices are geared towards improved performance, monitoring fitness, delivering coaching and training support, helping with navigation and tracking, cooling or heating the body or helping avoid or detect injuries.
Closely related to Sport and Fitness, this sector has nevertheless developed a number of applications that are quite distinctive such as weight/energy and other physiological monitoring or gait/posture corrections.
A wide array of wearable devices are entering the medical field allowing for unobtrusive and ongoing patient monitoring, chronic disease management such as diabetes care, remote EEG, ECG, EMG, augmentation of body functions such as hearing aids, pain control and more. Together they are becoming an important addition to healthcare.
Wearables also play an important role in monitoring and safety applications. Military, emergency, rescue and policing services routinely use such devices in situations that require remote monitoring, hazmat detection, security profiling and so forth.
Last but not least wearables are increasingly used in business environments. Here they can facilitate stock management, the sharing of data and information, customer service or access control to events or buildings.
Rapidly growing market
Over 2000 companies, including all major electronics multinationals are developing wearable devices for the global market. The two areas that promise to develop the most are medical and infotainment, followed by industrial, commercial and military applications. In the next 10 years the global market value of wearable electronic devices is projected to exceed USD 70 billion, up from just over 12 billion in 2014. By 2020 globally over 50 billion connected devices will be in use. The data produced by these devices is expected to double every year but much of it will be unstructured (without a pre-defined data model).
Testing and certification
While wearables are always on, worn as accessory, on-body or in-body there are today no available test methods to ensure that they are reliable and safe and will not cause allergies, infections or tumors in humans or animals. Other considerations that require assessment include x-ray stability, bio-chemical inertness, resistance to water and dust, thermal management, flexibility and stretchability, EM radiation, etc.
IEC work in standardization
There are a number of IEC TCs (Technical Committees) that cover different parts of wearable devices: TC 21: Secondary cells and batteries; TC 47: Semiconductor devices; TC 82: Solar photovoltaic energy systems; TC 100: Audio, video, multimedia systems and equipment; TC 110: Electronic display devices; TC 119: Printed electronics. All of them have extensive liaisons with other TCs and external standards bodies. However, new requirements in terms of flexibility, stretchability, reliability of devices that are in direct contact with the human body may call for a new approach to standardization in this area, covering hardware, software/data, safety and interoperability. This is something that is currently being evaluated within the IEC.