Super thin and flexible circuits clear the way for truly wearable computers
A wispy new kind of electronic circuit that can conform to every shape your body takes could give amputees greater control over artificial limbs, spawn truly controller-free video gaming, and make wearable devices like fitness trackers and computers so unnoticeable we never bother taking them off.
Electronics continue to get smaller, faster, and smarter, but they are still brittle and rigid enough to notice when you put them in your pocket. From phones to insulin pumps, tech is still bulky and heavy enough to notice.
A team of Japanese and European scientists working out of the University of Tokyo have developed an ultra-thin, flexible electronic circuit that floats like a feather and can be crumpled like paper.
“Now, you can wrap electronics not just around maybe a ball pen, but even around a human hair,” project leader Martin Kaltenbrunner told Business Insider in an email. “Our sensor foils can easily conform even to wrinkles of skin and be wrapped around the elbow or finger knuckles that steadily move, and still work perfectly.”
It could clear the way for innovations like ultra-sensitive “smart” skin that can collect information about the body and environment, highly responsive artificial limbs, and extremely badass video game controllers. It works in wet environments too, so you can wear it all day — even in the shower.
The invention is a huge step in the quest to develop electronics that seamlessly integrate with the human body and the environment. Medical devices thinner than plastic wrap can be placed anywhere on the body, even, as the researchers demonstrate in the video below, comfortably on the roof of the mouth. They say circuits inside the mouth could help people with speech difficulties.
It could also make consumer electronics devices more intimate and effective. Popular fitness devices like FitBit, Jawbone UP, and Basis Band are bracelets, watches, or pods that are clunky to wear (especially when sleeping) and easy to lose. They are also worn only on one part of the body, so they are modest in what they can measure, and are often suspected of being inaccurate.
Wrapping circuits around several parts of the body would allow users to collect more data on everything from body temperature to information from the environment, like solar exposure or wind chill.
The circuits could also be used to make human-like skin for robots, or robot-like skin for humans.
The study appeared July 24 in the journal Nature.
There are other flexible electronic devices out there, but this is by far the thinnest and most bendable. It remained functional even when researchers crumpled the sheet like paper.
Even with the circuits, the sheets are 1/5 the thickness of common kitchen wrap and 30 times lighter than paper. If laid onto a thin sheet of rubber, the circuits can also be stretched.
When placed on the hand the foil follows the contours of wrinkles in the skin without cracking or disrupting the circuits.
Because the circuits are cheap to make, the researchers say that obtaining them may be as easy as a trip to the corner store. The team doesn’t have any specific plans to license or market the technology yet, but we might be seeing it in three to five years, Kaltenbrunner said in an email.
“Because manufacturing costs of organic electronics are potentially low, imperceptible electronic foils may be as common in the future as plastic wrap is today,” the scientists wrote.
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