Is the wearable sector still only skin deep?

3rd May 2018
Posted By : Anna Flockett
Is the wearable sector still only skin deep?

Recently Mark Patrick of Mouser was given the opportunity, for the first time, to visit the Wearable Technology Show at London’s ExCel (which is now in its fifth year). Here he explains about his experience and delves deeper into the wearable sector.

Guest blog written by Mark Patrick, Mouser. 

During the course of the day, I spoke with numerous start-ups and academic bodies involved in applying wearables of various types to a raft of different application scenarios - from factory production lines to sport activities, and from administering healthcare to facilitating industrial inspection. Here is a snapshot of some of the many companies I met with.

Using aqueous processes, Pireta has developed a conductive fabric that still has the feel of normal clothing and can be folded or stretched in exactly the same way (as opposed to being constrained by interconnect wiring). The conductive coating is less than 2 microns thick, so it adds no significant weight to garments, nor does it impact upon breathability. One of the possibilities for this technology is to incorporate RFID functionality directly into all forms of attire. This would not only have plus points in terms of logistics, but also help to combat the growing problem of counterfeiting. Through its own patented process, Yorkshire-based firm Conductive Transfers has developed the capability to screen print electronic circuitry directly onto items of clothing. A big advantage of this method is the clothing production and printing can be done at a standard facility (thus helping to keep manufacturing costs down), while application of the wearable electronics can be kept separate (hence helping to protect the IP). The transfers exhibit impressive durability characteristics, generally lasting 70-80 washes. 

Finnish connectivity specialists, Bittium, showed their Wearable Platform for Health Monitoring; a reference design built around the Nordic Semiconductor NRF52832 Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) SoC with ARM Cortex-M4 processor core. It also has a 7-inch OLED-based user interface, plus haptic feedback and an array of sensors (including an optical heart rate sensor, 3-axis accelerometer, skin conductance sensor and infrared thermometer). The platform is optimised for low power operation and enables manufacturers to develop their own unique products without having to allocate large quantities of engineering resource and avoiding costly time-to-market delays. 

Figure 1: Bittium’s Wearable Platform for Health Monitoring.

Round Concept’s ThirdEye is a compact thermal imaging accessory that can accompany an ordinary smartphone (with which it connects via Wi-Fi). Enabling the convenience of hands-free work and being incredibly lightweight, it can be attached to the handset itself, be paired with glasses to match the operative’s field of view, or alternatively be held by the operative so they can reach inaccessible areas that would be difficult with a conventional thermal imager. The unit offers 160 x 120 pixel resolution, 0.5°C temperature accuracy and a 4 hour battery life. 

Figure 2: Third Eye from Round Concept.

Drawing on its expertise in thermoelectric, piezoelectric and triboelectric energy harvesting, Kymira Sport has developed an advanced fabric which absorbs energy given off by the wearer during exercise, which it then converts into infrared wavelengths that are proven to have a beneficial effect on human physiology. As a result, it can increase respiration efficiency - thereby helping to enhance athletic performance - and accelerate recovery times after training. Trials have shown it to reduce delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), meaning that athletes are able to push themselves harder. The ‘intelligent textile’ that Footfalls & Heartbeats have brought to the market benefits from the fact that we are in contact with textiles almost all of the time (through the clothes we wear or the bedding we sleep on). The company has hit on the idea of employing them to directly acquire data, making use of a proprietary weave structure that can measure tensile and compression forces. This allows the textile itself to serve as a sensor, so that performance analysis can be carried out on athletes without the complications (or inconvenience) of attaching a multitude of discrete sensors at various point on the body. There is also the prospect for it to be utilised to monitor the elderly during the night (through their pillows), as well as being applied to patient wound care.

Just about to go through crowdfunding, the SwimAR holographic head-up display will attach to any normal pair of swimming goggles. It provides the wearer with detailed information in terms of the laps completed and real-time performance data, without them having to stop their training or there being any interference with their field of view, while also exhibiting enough robustness to deal with tumble turns and other manoeuvres.

Figure 3: The SwimAR Holographic Head-Up Display.

The Knowledge Transfer section was of particular interest. Here there were representatives of various universities and research institutes showing their latest developments. A team at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) have been tackling the issue of accurate hydration monitoring.  The compact monitor they have created, which uses RF technology, can be placed comfortably onto the earlobe. Through this apparatus it is possible to assess an individual’s hydration status without needing to go through the time-consuming and costly process of extracting blood, then centrifuging it to separate out the plasma so that it can be tested. Instead it is able to take data straight from the blood vessels in the earlobe. As well as having huge potential in the elite sports domain, this could be of great benefit to reducing the cases of severe dehydration amongst the aged. 

IceRobotics have introduced a health monitoring system for dairy cattle that can provide data (on animal behaviour, mobility, etc.) that is invaluable in the prevention of disease and raising both productivity and welfare. Thanks to the artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms that have been integrated, early signs of lameness and fertility issues can be detected and alerts automatically generated for farmers and vets to prompt timely intervention. The rugged units, which are attached to a leg on each animal, have a 5 year battery life. Using RF, they transmit data back to the cloud on a regular basis, which is then accessed via a web-based dashboard. The company has already rolled out this technology to farms in the UK and continental Europe, and is just starting to see uptake in North America too.

Wearables have generated substantial media buzz over the last few years, but there are many that hold the view (myself perhaps included) this is a technology is desperately in need of a killer application. The fact that this is still to materialise is seemingly starting to dampen consumer interest (and studies have shown that a large proportion of wearable devices, such as fitness trackers, are worn for just a few months then left in drawers unused).

Though there were some interesting products on display at this event, I can’t say for certain that many of them are destined to gain real widespread appeal or achieve large scale commercial success. Despite the fact that there were quite respectable attendance levels (at least 6,000), it didn’t have huge numbers in terms of its exhibitors, with very few big names involved. The hope must be that, in the coming years, engineering innovation will bring about products that really ignite the public’s imagination and revitalise the wearable business so that it becomes a truly valid industry sector in the long term.  


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The Security Event 2019
9th April 2019
United Kingdom NEC, Birmingham