Wearable Technology Seeks New Materials

Despite incredible advances since the first pedometers, designers must experiment with novel materials to further improve wearables.

Photo 1434494878577 86c23bcb06b9
Luke Chesser, Unsplash

Created in 1780, the world’s first pedometer was developed using an earlier mechanism of a self-winding watch. Technology to ensure we meet those all-important 10,000 steps has come a long way since then, but the wearable technology market for health and fitness is constantly looking for new materials to continue development and innovation.

Dubbed as the ‘year of wearables’, 2014 witnessed a surge in wearable technology for health applications and, since then, the rate at which products are released has not slowed down. According to a report by Euromonitor, units of wearable technology are projected to exceed 305 million by 2020, with a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 55 per cent.

Health and fitness are amongst the most successful application areas for wearable technology. Research by Gartner states that worldwide shipments of wearable devices will reach 225 million in 2019, an increase of 25.8 per cent from 2018. However, despite an increase in sales, the technological advancements of wearable healthcare devices have decelerated.

Take fitness tracking as an example. While there have been a huge number of products released, such as smart watches, activity bands and clip-on trackers, there has been little development in technology beyond style, design and aesthetics. 

Smarter wearable devices, such as those that can be weaved into clothing, implanted in shoes or concealed on the wearers skin, are only now being developed into marketable products.

For instance, Graphene Flagship partner ICFO designed wearable health tracker, that is flexible, transparent and disposable, rather than a typical watch-style design. This patch has the potential, in the future, to accurately monitor several aspects of the wearer’s bodily functions, including heart rate, hydration, oxygen saturation, breathing rate and temperature.

As a smaller device, it would be easy to assume it is less powerful than its wrist-based predecessors. However, by using optical sensors exploiting graphene, the transdermal fitness patch surpasses the current limitations of existing fitness trackers, with improved accuracy. This is thanks to a combination of optoelectronic and mechanical properties.

Gait analysis, another area of fitness which is already using wearable technology, is also being improved with the integration of graphene. Pressure sensing insoles are not a new phenomenon. However, lightweight graphene-embedded foam could allow for these to be integrated into any type of shoe. This was demonstrated by a prototype developed by Graphene Flagship researchers at the University of Cambridge, and showcased with an interactive prototype at the 2019 Mobile Word Congress, whereby users could control a snowboarding avatar on a screen.

Giving runners greater freedom to use these insoles during personal training, thanks to ease of adding or removing insoles from shoes, this technology could allow for better insight into running techniques. For sportspeople and athletes, this would allow continuous monitoring of any biomechanical abnormalities in their gait cycle, helping to improve technique and avoid injury.

We have come a long way since the early examples of pedometers for counting steps. Wearables for the health and fitness market are in high demand. However, in order to improve their performance and capabilities, product designers must begin experimenting with new advanced materials, such as graphene and related materials.

Antonios Oikonomou is Business Developer for Wearables and Optoelectronics for Graphene Flagship

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