Smart Textiles Boost Wearable Tech Connectivity by 1,000 Times

Researchers in Singapore have devised a completely new way for wearable devices to interconnect.

From left: PhD student Mr Tian Xi, Research Fellow Dr Lee Pui Mun and Assistant Professor John Ho, together with seven NUS researchers, took a year to develop the 'smart' textiles (Image credit: NUS)

Researchers in Singapore have devised a completely new way for wearable devices to interconnect. Scientists from the National University of Singapore (NUS) incorporated conductive textiles into clothing to dynamically connect several wearable devices at once. This ‘wireless body sensor network’ allows devices to transmit data with 1,000 times stronger signal than conventional technologies, meaning the battery life of all devices is dramatically improved. This technology has potential applications in health monitoring, medical interventions and human–machine interfaces.

This breakthrough research was published in the journal Nature Electronics.

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Most of the currently available wearable devices such as smartwatches use Bluetooth and Wi-Fi to connect to smartphones. However, these waves radiate outwards in all directions, losing most of the energy to the surrounding area. This method of connectivity drastically reduces the efficiency of the wearable technology as most of its battery life is consumed in attempting the connection, reports NUS.

So, Assistant Professor John Ho and his team from the Institute for Health Innovation & Technology (NUS iHealthtech) and NUS Engineering wanted to confine the signals between the sensors closer to the body to improve efficiency.

They enhanced regular clothing with conductive textiles known as metamaterials. Rather than sending waves into surrounding space, these metamaterials are able to create surface waves which can glide wirelessly around the body on the clothes. This means that the energy of the signal between devices is held close to the body rather than spread in all directions. Hence, the wearable electronics use much less power than normal, and the devices can detect much weaker signals.

Image: NUS

“This innovation allows for the perfect transmission of data between devices at power levels that are 1,000 times reduced. Or, alternatively, these metamaterial textiles could boost the received signal by 1,000 times which could give you dramatically higher data rates for the same power,” Asst Prof Ho stated. In fact, the signal between devices is so strong that it is possible to wirelessly transmit power from a smartphone to the device itself — opening the door for battery-free wearable devices.

What’s more important is this signal boost does not require any changes to either the smartphone or the Bluetooth device – the metamaterial works with any existing wireless device in the designed frequency band.

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This method also provides more privacy than conventional methods. Currently, radio-waves transmit signals several meters outwards from the person wearing the device, meaning that personal and sensitive information could be vulnerable to potential eavesdroppers. By confining the wireless communication signal to within 10 centimeters of the body, Asst Prof Ho and his team have created a network which is more secure.

The team is talking to potential partners to commercialize this technology.

“We envision that endowing athletic wear, medical clothing and other apparel with such advanced electromagnetic capabilities can enhance our ability to perceive and interact with the world around us,” Asst Prof Ho said.

Sam Draper
July 16, 2019

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