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Wearable Technology: Types of Materials Used
Wearable tech is officially the next big innovation in technology, and its popularity has skyrocketed in the past few years. It seems like every few months a new wearable gadget hits the market for every task and for every part of the body, such as fitness trackers, smart watches, and head mounted displays with augmented or virtual reality capabilities. Even clothes aren’t exempt: the company Sensoria produces smart running socks that track their wearer’s runs.
So what is wearable tech, and what makes it different from an accessory like a pair of headphones? The key is connection. Wearables have all sorts of ways to connect to other devices like your smartphone as well as you. Fitness trackers, for example, have sensors that connect to your body to track data. Most wearables have a Bluetooth or wifi connection that allows them to connect to phones or other devices like laptops.
While this technology is still fairly young, that hasn’t stopped speculation about what its impact on the culture will be. In fact, some experts in the tech sphere are predicting that these devices could someday replace the now-ubiquitous smartphone. “Make no mistake: We're still probably at least a decade away from any kind of meaningful shift away from the smartphone,” writes technology reporter Matt Weinberger for Business Insider. “Yet, piece by piece, the groundwork for the eventual demise of the smartphone is being laid by Elon Musk, Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon, and a countless number of startups that still have a part to play.” One of those pieces may that chip away at the smartphone’s monopoly may well be wearables.
If these devices are headed towards the level of use that smartphones are at right now, the material that they are made of is a necessary and timely question to wonder about. Wearable devices are arguably more intimate than other pieces of technology. Similar to a necklace or a wedding ring, these devices are worn on the body every day. That means they must be comfortable and constructed out of flexible material. Flexible material is both lighter and less expensive, adding to their value proposition. So what kinds of materials are we looking at?
Current Trends in Materials for Wearable Technology
To meet requirements of reasonable cost, flexibility, and comfort, companies are now directing their energies toward developing printed materials for wearable electronics and smart fabrics. For example, Fitbit wristbands are made of an elastomer material that’s also latex-free. This material is lightweight, flexible, and used with many other health and fitness related sports bands.
Smart clothing is a bit harder. It has to conduct electricity but also be breathable, flexible material. It’s a worthy challenge, and researchers are already on it. A team of researchers from China’s Donghua University, Nanjing Forestry University, and Germany’s University of Bayreuth found a special production process by which they could create a nonwoven material that was both comfortable and able to conduct electricity. The did this by using a special process of electro-spinning to combine polymer fibers with tiny silver wires in liquid. The fabric was created after this concoction was filtered, dried, and heated.
Other innovators have already hit the market, including DuPont. This company offers an array of flexible materials ready for wearable technology. Made of silver and dielectric inks, these materials are resistant to detergent and can be washed in a regular washing machine: a huge advantage for consumers.
Future of Materials in Wearable Technology
There are even more interesting and exciting materials for wearables on the horizon. Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have been testing a fabric that can generate energy from both physical movement and sunlight. While the fabric, comprised of solar cells constructed from lightweight polymer fibers with fiber-based triboelectric nanogenerators performed well in tests, researchers are still testing its long-term durability before releasing it to the market. Similarly, microelectric researchers at Finland’s University of Oulu recently discovered a type of ferroelectric mineral that can convert sunlight, heat, and motion into energy at the same time, representing enormous possibilities for multi-energy harvesting wearables. And Purdue University has developed a paper-based smart patch that monitors dehydration. This is a promising addition to another aspect of wearables — healthcare.
Wearables have a commanding presence in the market already, and they aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. These devices, with uses from healthcare to communication to entertainment and more, are poised to become an irreplaceable part of our lives in the near future. Thus, understanding what materials are being used to create them is an important question to begin examining now. The good news is there are plenty of innovative and important materials already being used for wearables, and no shortage of essential and exciting research being conducted for wearables that can be made in the future.