The new smart network could drastically change how wearable devices connect to radio waves. These conductive textiles can be integrated into clothing to boost signal up to 1,000 times. (Image credit: NUS)


Wearable technology continues to be a major trend in electronics. From smart watches to smart clothing, developers are finding new ways to integrate technology and the human body. Most wearables are connected to your smartphone and transmit all data via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi signals. The problem is the signal gets weak the more smart devices you use simultaneously. With smart devices getting better and becoming more commonplace, many are seeking stronger connections. National University of Singapore researchers may have found a solution with their new “wireless body sensor network.”


This reminds me of those stickers that were supposed to boost cell-signals.


The “wireless body sensor network” incorporates conductive textiles into clothing, allowing it to connect several wearables at once. With this network, the devices can transmit data with 1,000 times stronger signal than conventional means drastically improving battery life. Most wearable devices connect to electronics via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, which radiates in all directions and loses energy to the surrounding area. The team tackled this issue by combining clothing with metamaterials.


The metamaterial textile design consists of a comb-shaped strip of metamaterial on top of the clothing with an unpatterned conductor layer underneath. The strips can be placed on clothing in any pattern necessary to connect all areas of the body. The team used a computer model to help create the design to ensure successful communication in the radio frequency range and to optimize overall efficacy. The conductive metamaterial then has to be laser cut and attached to the clothing with fabric adhesive. 


Instead of sending waves into surrounding space, metamaterials create “surface waves,” which glides around the body on the clothes. This way, the energy of the signal between devices is closer to the body instead of spreading in different directions. As a result, the wearables use less power than normal, and the devices can detect weaker signals.


The improved signal strength between devices makes it possible to wirelessly transmit power from a smartphone to the device— opening the door for battery-free wearable devices. Additionally, the signal boost works without making changes to the smartphone or Bluetooth device. The new network also offers more privacy than conventional methods. Since radio-waves send signals outwards from the person wearing the device, it puts personal and sensitive information at risk. Keeping the signal confined to the body presents a safer method of connection.


The smart clothes not only provide a better signal, they’re highly robust as well. They can fold and bend with little loss to signal strength. The conductive strips can also withstand being cut or torn without affecting wireless capabilities. And if it gets dirty, the smart clothing can be washed, dried, and ironed like regular clothing.


So what’s next? The team is currently speaking to potential partners to commercialize the technology. They also hope to test the “smart textiles” as specialized athletic clothing and for hospital patients to monitor health and performances.


“We envision that endowing athletic wear, medical clothing and other apparel with such advanced electromagnetic capabilities can enhance our ability to perceive and interact with the world around us,” Assistant Professor Ho said.


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