Wristphones and Wearables 2.0

Wristphones and Wearable Consultants. Animation courtesy Bob Banks

Problems with today's wearables

Today's first generation wearables such as the Apple Watch and Fitbit wearables can be characterised as electronics in a box rather like most previous generations of consumer electronics from TVs to smartphones. One of the problems faced by product designers is that flexible displays with sufficient optical performance have so far only been demonstrated in the lab restricting products to rigid form factors.

The second problem is that today's displays are typically emissive which look unnatural next to  textiles and skin when they are emitting light. Furthermore, the display is usually kept off when not being viewed to conserve battery life, resulting in a black screen which often looks out of place. A series of fashion related images on Stylecaster shows just how hard it is to combine the Apple watch with garments and look stylish. As the author somewhat cruelly says, "the Apple Watch still looks a hell of a lot like the bulky digital timepieces that were popular in the 80's". Ouch. 

Other problems with today's wearable devices that were also identified in the recent Ericsson Consumerlab survey include limited functionality and needing to be wirelessly tethered to the user's smartphone for full functionality. How can these problems be addressed? 

Apple Watch & iPhone 6 with black screens in the off state. Image courtesy Pixabay

Apple Watch & iPhone 6 with black screens in the off state. Image courtesy Pixabay

Wristphones and Wearables 2.0

The wristphone concept described in the animation attempts to solve these problems by being a wearable device that "does everything that a smartphone does and much more besides" and could be described as a second generation wearable device. The key features of a wearables 2.0 device that differentiate it from first generation devices are:

  1. Truly flexible and reflective display
  2. Medical grade sensors
  3. Stand-alone

The display technology is probably the most challenging feature, so let us consider this in more detail. It is clear that for a wearable with a display that is significantly larger than a wristwatch face, the display must become flexible. Here on the Science Park in Cambridge, significant progress has been made by FlexEnable in developing a flexible transistor technology that can drive a liquid crystal display. FlexEnable's transistors can be fabricated on sheets of plastic that are as thin as a human hair. As a result these sheets of transistors are extremely flexible and can be rolled around a pencil without breaking, thus easily meeting a requirement to wrap round a human wrist or bicep for example. Critically this is a technology that has already been industrially proven and can be manufactured at a cost that is comparable to today's ubiquitous glass LCD displays. Reflective displays are already used in some smartwatches from Pebble and have the advantage of having much lower power consumption and can therefore always being on, thus avoiding an emissive display's "black screen of death". Unfortunately these devices aren't particularly bright indoors where we spend most of our lives. Folium optics based in Bristol has made significant progress with a different reflective liquid crystal display technology that is bright indoors. Being a reflective technology also ensures that the human visual cortex perceives the display as being "natural" as can be seen in this video. A natural appearance will be critical to making wearables with displays that are fashionable. Together, these technologies have the potential to provide a display that is both reflective and truly flexible and therefore ideally suited to wearables.   

The inclusion of medical grade sensors is part of the solution to increasing the functionality of wearables. Earlier this year Alivecor announced the Kardia band which works with the Apple Watch to provide a medical grade ECG and can detect some potentially dangerous heart conditions. The addition of further sensors  will permit accurate vital signs measurements and have the potential to enable radical new approaches to health services perhaps inspired Lee Dryburgh's Wellness as a Service(WaaS) concept or the XPrize's Tricorder competition. Health focussed wearables could be part of a Cambridge Wireless Healthcare SIG solution to some of the challenges identified at the recent NHS focussed meeting. Medical grade sensors will also be appreciated by professional athletes and fitness enthusiasts.

Finally, making wearables stand-alone frees the user from having to carry their smartphone. This is particularly relevant for many leisure applications such as running and working out at the gym or for social occasions when our clothing doesn't include pockets and we don't want to carry a bag. In these situations, smartphones become something of a burden with displays that are liable to shatter. The recently announced Pebble Core is a wearable that aims to solve this problem for music streaming and includes a 3G modem so that the user's smartphone can be left at home or in the locker.   

In conclusion, new display and sensor technologies can enable next generation Wearables 2.0 devices which will have the benefits of being more fashionable, support new wellness and health services and allow us to enjoy leisure activities without having to carry a smartphone. 

Mark Catchpole         

Article first published on Cambridge Wireless websiteAll rights reserved. Mark is a wearable technology consultant with Wearable Consultants based in Cambridge, UK. Please get in touch via mark@wearableconsultants.com