Image courtesy of Printoo via Kickstarter.

Flexible Wearable Devices Are Already Here, And They’ll Soon Be Ubiquitous

Soft, flexible wearable devices might be right around the corner.

Ever since the first personal computer, there has been a trend towards the miniaturization of devices.

This is helped by Moore’s Law, which states that as tech advances, the amount of chips that can be fitted on a circuit board will double every 18 months – enabling not only devices of the same size to be more powerful, but allowing smaller devices to be as powerful as their larger predecessors.

Now, however, the noble but inflexible circuit board is becoming a bit of a stumbling block to the next trend of computing: wearable.

Uncomfortable wearables

As we’ve written about before, one third of wearable devices are currently being ditched within 6 months. While there are several reasons for this, one might simply be the relatively clunky form factor.

Almost no matter how small you can make them, traditional circuit boards and batteries are still rigid objects.

But for wearables to be comfortable, they may have to be as supple and flexible as clothing.

“These objects are the most personable, nearly sensual or intimate objects,” said Gadi Amit, designer of the Fitbit wearable device, in an interview with Quartz.

And a study by the University of Birmingham found that the size, weight, and weight distribution of a device were important factors in determining a device’s desirability.

Recent technological advances, however, could leave the old, inflexible circuit board behind, in favor of ultralight, unobtrusive materials.

Flexible tech

As it turns out, bendable circuit boards are already available.


Image courtesy of Printoo via Kickstarter.

The San Francisco-based Printoo Kickstart project by the company Ynvisble is building a series of paper-thin, open source, modular circuit boards that can be added to any object to make them “smart.

Modules include a Bluetooth 4.0 connector, flexible batteries, monochromatic screens, and solar cells. The largest components on the boards are only a few millimeters thick. See the video below for another demonstration:

Similar technologies include Samsung’s bendable screen prototype and Queen’s University’s PaperFold, which works like a flexible, shape changing smartphone.

Researchers are are also looking into ways of creating flexible batteries, for instance by embedding them into clothing.

Even more futuristic, perhaps, are stretchable screens and devices.

A recently published paper in the journal Chemistry of Materials describes several new findings that could create stretchable electronics – “materials whose molecular structure permits extreme deformation without the loss of electronic function.”

Technologies like this could create devices that can be bent into almost any shapes, wearable sensors such as the Reebok-sponsored MC10 impact detector for athletes, and screens that bend instead of breaking.

Scientists at Northwestern University have already developed a lithium-ion battery that can be stretched up to 300% of its original size:

Of course, the holy grail of wearable (or pretty much any tech) is graphene, the superlative, electricity-conducting material that’s stronger than steel, thinner than paper, and as flexible as rubber.

But since commercialization of graphene is still years away, researchers are using current materials to make some pretty amazing products, such as the flexible medical sensor that produces results similar to professional electrocardiographs (EKGs) and EEG brain monitors.

Given that it uses technology that’s already available, we’re likely to see devices like this commercialized sooner rather than later.

Ole Skaar