Enabling wearables through prototype technology
All wearable technology starts life as research followed by a prototype. Building a device that works consistently involves lots of experimentation and testing (often to destruction) so that only the most durable features make it into the final product.
Students from the Queen Mary University of London had their own stand at the Wearable Technology Show 2015 to display the exciting and creative wearable projects underway at the School of Electronic Engineering and Computer Science. From nanotechnology sensor systems to an ice breaker jacket equipped with near field communication (NFC) that shows social compatibility, using a simple LED lighting system, the designs showed some of the ways that wearable technology could be used to enhance everyday interactions.
Handbags and Handshakes
Christine Farion likes to put computer interfaces into everyday objects and her Message Bag was a great example. For anyone who ever forgets important items like keys, wallet or a travelcard, whatever it is the Message Bag uses a contactless radio frequency and tagging system to register when you put items into it. Lights on the side tell the user when all the essentials have been included, as well as an audible beep and vibration. This type of technology, simple in concept and build, could prove extremely useful for dementia sufferers or people with memory problems.
The Icebreaker jacket v2.0 mentioned above was put together and displayed by Nanda Khaoropong, designed as a study tool to see how shy people behave when meeting with strangers. Context-aware computing uses NFC technology built into the cuff and social notification (a sort of ‘traffic light’ system) triggered by two people wearing the jacket shaking hands, plus a hidden camera that records facial expression and conversation. In hindsight perhaps a conversation would be easier, but it’s an interesting use of the technology.
One of my favourite projects was from Antonella Mazzoni – a touch feedback glove that helps hearing impaired people to feel the emotion from a film. It is not just the visual aspect of movies that draws us in, music can drastically change the way we feel about images or events in a film, so Antonella’s haptic glove was designed to help people feel the music and convey some of its emotion.
Another musical project was Evan Morgan’s ‘LuminUs’ that looked at how musicians collaborate and their social interactions while playing in a group. LuminUs is a small lighting display positioned near to each player with two modes – motion feedback and gaze feedback. Motion is recorded through small wireless accelerometers that measure body movement, showing the other musicians how that person is moving. Gaze meanwhile uses eye-tracking glasses to show when one musician is looking toward another. It then lets that musician know they are being looked at. Both motion and gaze feedback together may help musicians gel more quickly as a group, but the aim is to analyse how that group dynamic works.
Get the EJ
One company that offers an interesting way to develop prototypes and create embedded touchscreens, with their own range of online apps, is IS2T, who created MicroEJ – a Java open-source software development kit with libraries – giving people the power to create connected devices. At WTS 2015 the COO Regis Latawiec was there with a coffee machine he had prototyped using 3D print and touchscreen hardware. By developing simple apps for the coffee machine he was able to connect to it wirelessly via the internet and get it to produce a cup of coffee remotely.
MicroEJ supports lots of different hardware architectures and allows people to develop software for their own projects including industrial control systems, home automation, smart meters and medical devices. Regis said MicroEJ could be used to make an alternative operating system for smartwatches – great if companies do not want to be tied into Android Wear.
Flexible LED screens
Another innovative company exhibiting at WTS2015 was British flexible display maker Polar OLED. Although its website is a little thin on information, the company has developed roll-to-roll plastic displays using small molecule OLED technology, which it calls CrystOLED. There are lots of industries where this could be used, not least the most obvious ones of advertising and media, but wearables is one of the more intriguing ones along with disposable diagnostic medical devices. Polar OLED is now working at the UK’s National Centre for Printable Electronics at the Centre for Process Innovation, to develop its products.