Picture a world in which your car’s speedometer appears not on the dashboard, but rather on the inside of the windshield. A world in which smart windows adjust their transparency according to the environment. A world in which advanced wearables measure not just data like body temperature and pulse rate but also hormone levels.
That’s the world we are fast approaching, given developments in the field of transparent electronics.
A research team from Australia’s Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) issued a report in April 2021 about a breakthrough in the two-dimensional semiconductor space, and that is expected to make all of this possible, as well as things like transparent solar panels and optical coatings. (An aside about the latter: The hope is that whatever eyewear comes of this, it advances beyond the Google Glass, which created a buzz in the early 2010s but was phased out just a few years later, largely because of privacy concerns.)
Certainly the potential of transparent electronics has attracted the attention of the tech giants, as well as investors. Samsung, Apple, 3M and Cambrios Technology are among those making inroads in the field, and the market for these devices, which stood at a shade over $996 million in 2019, is expected to balloon to $3.8 billion by 2025. That’s an impressive compound annual growth rate of 25 percent, and it’s not expected to slow anytime soon. By 2041, in fact, the market is expected to reach $20 billion.
The RMIT team developed ultrathin beta-tellurite, a high-mobility p-type oxide that according to team leader Dr. Torben Daeneke “fills a crucial gap in the materials spectrum to enable fast, transparent circuits.”
As explained in the report, p-type semiconducting materials are characterized by positively charged electrons, n-type materials by those that are negatively charged, and stacking them atop one another allows electronic devices to function. The issue, however, is that researchers have not been able to find many p-type oxides over the years.
Daeneke’s team built on previous research showing that tellurium could behave as both a metal and non-metal. They were able to synthesize beta-tellurite, then spread a molten layer — one that was just 1.5 nanometers thick — over a surface. Testing showed that it was anywhere between 10 and 100 times faster than any p-type semiconductors that had been previously developed.
The RMIT team built in part upon the work of a team at Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, which in 2018 developed nanowires so thin that they were transparent. Atif Shamim, Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) and Principal Investigator of the Integrated Microwave Packaging Antennas and Circuits Technology (IMPACT) lab, told the website Phys.org that the idea came to him when he saw his newborn son in an incubator within a maternity ward: How can infants be protected from radiation in such a room, the elder Shamim wondered, while still being visible to their loved ones?
His team’s work revealed a potential answer to that question, and now the RMIT team has gone one step further. So too has the technology as a whole.
While 4G technology made possible high-speed mobile browsing and wearable connectivity, 5G promises that those wearables will become even more prominent, smaller, and more efficient. That goes for ones already in existence, like smartwatches and health trackers, and those still on the drawing board (like, believe it or not, tattooables).
How that happens comes down to 5G’s accessibility to the cloud, its lower latency, and its speed, which can theoretically be 100 times faster than 4G.
Real-time data transfer will now be possible, and some experts believe that in the not-too-distant future, virtually everything we wear (clothing, shoes, contact lenses, even sensors placed under the skin to track health data) will transform us into walking, talking connected devices.
Certainly skeptics remain, but Fortune cites International Data Corporation projections indicating that wearable sales will reach $49.4 billion this year, and soar to $69.8 billion by 2024. Sanyogita Shamsunder, Verizon’s vice president of 5G Labs and Innovation, told Fortune that ‘2024 will in fact serve as an “inflection point,” as that will be the year that medical sensors will become commonplace.
Already available, Fortune notes, are smart glasses, smart earbuds (a.k.a. “hearables”) and yoga pants that make those wearing them aware if their yoga technique leaves something to be desired.
And those tattooables? While still in development, they are expected to be constructed of wafer-thin electric mesh, according to Fortune, which will enable them to store data and do things like deliver drugs.
The reason wearables are expected to shrink in size, according to TechRadar, is that they will no longer need physical space to store data; 5G can simply zip data right to the cloud. Instead, wearables of the near future will consist of ultrathin sensors, and little else.
An increase in sensors and a decrease in size is precisely what will cement wearables as part of the Internet of Things. Until now, we’ve mostly thought of wearables as items such as smartwatches that the user wears on their wrist. But these sensor-packed devices could just as easily be connected to objects rather than people to read and process data in real-time.
Consumers may also be happy to know that relieving some of the processor’s job means that a device’s battery will be more efficient. The ability to charge wirelessly within a wider range — up to 30 cm away — will allow devices to charge without cables or docks, even when in use.
All of this will take time, however. AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile have all begun rolling out 5G, but it will be years before most of the country, let alone the world, has coverage. Then, manufacturers must create devices that harness the power of 5G.
In addition, there are privacy concerns about sensitive personal data being widely circulated, location data being easily accessible, and even foreign manufacturing threatening national security.
Such matters give one pause, to be sure. But for now, it’s full speed ahead for 5G, at 100 times the pace of the existing technology. While there are potential hurdles, there are also vast possibilities that make 5G’s future look extremely promising.
The problem with wearable sensors over the years has been one of durability. When repeatedly folded and bent, they developed micro-cracks that curtailed their conductivity.
Nothing a little red wine won’t fix. Or coffee. Or black tea.
The tannic acid present in those liquids was found by a team of scientists at the University of Manchester, England, to be crucial to improving the mechanical properties of wearables.
The team had previously used the same idea to develop artificial hands and capacitive breath sensors. Prior to the discovery of tannic acid as a useful tool in the creation of wearable technology, there had been many failures due to a lack of effective resources.
Tannic acid is the reason it is so difficult to remove red-wine stains from fabric: It firmly adheres to the material on the surface of the fiber. Such adhesion is, team leader Dr. Xuqing Liu, leader told Phys.org, “exactly what we need for durable, wearable, conductive devices.”
While scientists have been purchasing tannins to create these technological items, they tested fabrics by soaking them in coffee and black tea. They found that these liquids had the same effect on the fabrics that red wine did. This assured them that the adhesive properties of black coffee and tea are just as effective.
Using that knowledge, scientists are hopeful that in the near future they will be able to create wearable technology devices that are not only more comfortable but also longer-lasting and more cost-efficient.
Through the use of red wine, black tea and coffee, developers can create devices that, instead of being made of nylon, are made of cotton instead. The technology that is enabled by the use of tannic acid means that a device’s circuits will be attached to the surface of the fabric. This replaces the previous rigid circuit board with one that the wearer of the device isn’t even likely to notice.
While the technology industry is changing in many ways, wearable technology is among this and next year’s largest aspects. It has been predicted that sales of wearable technology around the world are set to reach a monetary value of $27 billion by 2022.
Yesterday’s wearable devices used conductive yarn. However, the coating on this material often peeled off, rendering it useless. Substituting tannic acid eliminates this problem.
Only time will tell what further research on this subject uncovers. But this latest breakthrough represents a quantum leap forward, in that it improves the durability of these widely used sensors. Moreover, it shows what can be accomplished through an outside-the-box approach — how a problem can be solved, if only it is approached from a different angle.
Just as smartphone usage has evolved from phone calls and emails to being an essential part of an employee’s work life, wearables such as smartwatches are also continuing to enable employees to be more productive, efficient and safe. Wearables are projected to be a $60 billion part of our workforce by 2022, and usage is steadily increasing as devices grow their capabilities and employees are more comfortable using the technology.
In the sci-fi world of the future, employees are often replaced by robots and made obsolete in various scary scenarios. In reality, wearables can actually make employees more indispensable. In fields such as construction and manufacturing, wearables can enhance employees abilities as well as keep them safe. As the workforce ages and jobs become increasingly complex, wearables can amplify hearing, sight and strength and sound alarms if anything is amiss. Headsets, augmented reality (AR) and exoskeletons mean humans can basically have superpowered senses while working.
Another safety and productivity benefit is being able to track and work with employees at any time. Through wearable tech, employee locations can be easily pinpointed in the event of a disaster or other unexpected event. Sales calls and time can be logged and monitored. Research shows a 10% increase in workplace productivity when wearables are implemented. Studies also show that goals are much more readily reached both when written down and when shared, creating accountability and community.
Wearables seem to work best when utilized in task-specific ways. Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) give architects and interior designers the incredible ability to create detailed simulations of projects for clients and that surgeons can perform operations even more accurately. Wearables have also proven beneficial in improving quality of life for the chronically ill via VR and for police, security and military forces using body cams.
Office applications for wearables are also increasing and creating benefits for employees who work for the same company at different locations. Office headsets for meetings, for example, can make it seem like you are at the meeting rather than hunching over a conference room speaker. Virtual assistants keep everyone on task, translation devices ease and even erase communication barriers, and you can even improve your posture with a posture tracker. Smart suits, jackets and caps are also in the works.
Another benefit of using wearables at work is simply overall employee health. Step counters and programs to incentivize their usage promote positive lifestyle changes. Fitbit reported 1.6 billion in revenue in 2017 alone and Fitbit users take 43 percent more steps than non-users. This promotion is one of the most powerful pros to workplace wearables, as it is key to prevention of health issues and general employee wellbeing.
Given the general increase in adoption and overall benefits of wearables in the workplace, it stands to reason that more innovation and ease of use will mean these devices become more commonplace over time. And since they collect data, the real-time feedback they provide allows changes and adjustments can be made and pushed out quickly. All of which means that fitbit or smartwatch you already rely on is only just the beginning.
Wearable tech has been a slowly rising trend over the past decade. Most wearables these days are health-related, and tracking the body is a difficult task. We’ve seen tech such as sleep trackers and fitness trackers prove beneficial for consumers, but wearables have yet to achieve their full potential. With graphene, that may just become possible.
Graphene is well-known as a “wonder material,” and looking at its properties, it’s easy to see why. Graphene is one of the thinnest materials known to man; it is made up of a single layer of carbon atoms, all connected and interlaced into a lattice, honeycomb-like formation. In addition to being thin, graphene is also incredibly light. But don’t let its size fool you — it’s nearly 200 times stronger than steel, and possess technological capabilities far beyond our current materials provide.
Graphene is excellent at conducting heat and electricity, and the material is a frontrunner in replacing copper and silicon in tech devices. For instance, graphene is particularly good as a sensor, and is being researched for a variety of sensor types, including for gas, DNA, pH levels, environmental contamination, pressure, and more.
Graphene can also potentially impact wearables by powering them for greater capability and lasting power. Using graphene to create next-gen flexible batteries, University of Glasgow researchers have successfully created a graphene supercapacitor that is capable of recharging using solar power and discharges enough energy to power advanced wearable devices.
The most recent and perhaps most important breakthrough in graphene wearables to date were featured at the 2019 Mobile World Congress (MWC) in their Graphene Pavillion. Research nonprofit organization ICFO presented revolutionary graphene-based health-monitoring wearables; these devices are less like the watches and bands that currently occupy much of the wearable tech space, and instead acts like a dermal patch. This means that the graphene wearable can be applied directly to the skin, which can result in improved readings when monitoring health metrics.
ICFO supposes that this graphene tech would be useful in monitoring hydration and blood oxygen levels. This would be particularly helpful for when people are in extreme conditions, such as at the Earth’s poles, high altitudes, or anywhere far from civilization. In such situations, someone could apply the patch, which would use graphene to create miniscule sensors, circuits, and batteries to power the wearable and allow it to track internal data.
The patch would then be paired with a smartphone to allow for real-time communication, and will notify users when they are at risk of dehydration or other severe medical statuses. The patches will also be made to be disposable, and the researchers at ICFO are working to ensure that all components, even necessary adhesives, are biodegradable and environmentally friendly.
With the newly revealed patch-like wearable, graphene is beginning to show the world how it can disrupt various tech-based industries, and the healthcare and medical fields are sure to benefit from graphene research. With the wonder material in its hands, the wearable tech industry is sure to continue making leaps and bounds moving forward.