Scientists at Singapore Uni develop new 'smart' wearable tech for clothing

Researchers at the National University of Singapore (NUS) have come up with a way for wearable devices to connect, by creating a new, special fabric that allows signals to sent more directly and using less energy, according to the latest report.

At present, most wearable sensors such as those found in smart watches connect to smartphones and other devices via radio-waves like Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. As such, the outward spread of these waves in every direction is very inefficient and most energy is lost to the surrounding environment.

The scientists in Singapore, however, have integrated conductive textiles into clothing directly to effectively allow several wearable devices to connect at once. Their clothes contain a wireless body sensor network which allows devices to transmit data with signals one thousand times stronger than conventional technologies, they claim.

Such an adaption greatly increases the efficiency of wearable technology as less battery life is wasted in trying to make a connection. The inventors hope a wireless network of wearable devices using their material could be used in the future for health care, medical interventions, and human-machine interfaces.

The team that came up with the concept were originally from the Institute for Health Innovation & Technology (NUS iHealthtech) and NUS Engineering provided a solution. The system involved enhancing regular clothing with conductive textiles known as metamaterials.

Metamaterials can create 'surface waves' which can move wirelessly around the body of the clothes, without the need to travel through the air. The energy signal remains close to the body rather than spreading in every direction.

Not only do the wearable electronics use much less power but the devices can detect weaker signals, according to the researchers.

Using the new technology, the signal between points is so strong such that the power can be used for wirelessly-charging devices from the smartphone itself. This provides a unique window of opportunity for battery-free wearable devices going forward.

"This innovation allows for the perfect transmission of data between devices at power levels that are one thousand times reduced. Or, alternatively, the metamaterial textiles could boost the received signal by a thousand times which could give you dramatically higher data rates for the same power," said lead member of the research team, Assistant Professor Ho.

The team described how, using such technology, smartphones and Bluetooth devices can be left unmodified to fit the system. Their metamaterial works with any current wireless device in the designed frequency band.

Meanwhile, the team claims that privacy is also enhanced, since the user’s personal and sensitive information is not broadcast to the surrounding area as it is with Wi-Fi. The technology confines the wireless signal to within 10m of the body only.

The metamaterial textile design itself consists of a comb-shaped strip on top of the clothing, whilst an unpatterned conductor layer sits underneath. These strips can be arranged on the clothing in any pattern to connect each area of the body.

The clothes can be folded and bent with minimal loss to signal strength. The conductive strips can also be cut without damage and this would not inhibit wireless capabilities. Crucially, as well, the clothing can be washed and ironed just like a regular shirt or dress.

In the future, the research team is looking to commercialize their findings. They hope to test new applications in such areas as specialized athletic gear and clothing for hospital patients, to help monitor their health.

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