Computers you can wear, inside and out
Thirty years ago it was almost unimaginable that so many of us would be carrying a computer in our pocket.
And yet, advances in mobile phone technology mean that for the more affluent countries of the world this is exactly the case. But it is almost certainly true to say that the inexorable march of scientific and commercial progress will not stop there.
The latest goal for technologists around the world is to produce computers so small they can be sewn into our clothing.
Roll-up digital screens
Researchers from the University of Surrey in the UK are already working with scientists from Philips to develop circuit components that enable digital technologies to be incorporated into flexible plastics or clothing textiles.
Their Source-Gated-Transistor (SGT) could even be used to create ultra-lightweight and flexible computer screens that can be rolled up to save space when not in use.
Such gadgets could be a boon for professionals who need to use technology in the field. This could include environmental scientists assessing the geology of inhospitable landscapes or translators called out to mediate in remote areas.
Roll-up digital screens also have lots of potential for health researchers and aid agencies that need to their services to communities around the world, requiring them to communicate in lots of different languages.
Other potential uses for wearable technology include:
- Smart plasters, thinner than a human hair, that can wirelessly monitor the health of the wearer
- Low-cost electronic shopping tags for instant checkout
- Disaster prediction sensors, used on buildings in regions that are at high risk of natural catastrophes.
Lead researcher Dr Radu Sporea of the Advanced Technology Institute (ATI), University of Surrey, said: “These technologies involve thin plastic sheets of electronic circuits, similar to sheets of paper, but embedded with smart technologies. Until now, such technologies could only be produced reliably in small quantities, and that confined them to the research lab. However, with SGTs we have shown we can achieve characteristics needed to make these technologies viable, without increasing the complexity or cost of the design.”
Technology aids translation
Recent technological advances have already been applied to the world of translation. Waygo is a smart phone app that translates Chinese. Translation begins when the user hovers their phone over text.
The app works even when it is not connected to the internet by using optical-character recognition (OCR) technology. The technology, which deciphers individual characters and short phrases, is so successful that the app has included Japanese among the languages it can translate.
The technology cannot be relied on to translate complex information, but it is useful for menus, instructions, and other day-to-day uses. Incorporating such technology into a handy glove, or even the sleeve of a coat, would give users the ability to translate text with a simple wave of the hand.
The medical science sector has also shown much interest in using technology for translation purposes. An app by New York City-based Transcendent Endeavors aims to improve communication between patients and health care professionals by relaying basic medical instructions in Fukienese, a group of dialects spoken in southeastern China.
The firm has also developed touch-screen software that allows patients to click pictures such as a pained face, which instantly alerts a nurse to their problem. But most digital tools can only help communicate basic information across language barriers, and some experts say translation apps and other tools can even be dangerous if they lead to incomplete communication.
As yet there is no substitute for a trained medical interpreter or a fully bilingual practitioner.
A fantastic voyage
And if you think the eager futurists will stop there, you are wrong.
The latest predictions for miniaturised tech could see microscopic computers released into the human body.
Speaking at the Wearable Technology Conference in London, Cisco boffin David Evans believes humans could soon be replacing healthy body parts with technology in a bid to upgrade and “self-evolve”.
He explains that on average the same computer processing power becomes 100 times smaller each decade. The ground-breaking ENIC computer built in 1946 weighed 30 tonnes, but the same level of processing power can be found in a musical greeting card today.
“If you do the math and fast-forward a little bit, in about two and a half decades the power of your smartphone will fit into something the size of a red blood cell,” he said.
“It completely changes the game if humans can have red blood cell-size computing.
“Where I think we’re going in the next decade is the embeddable phase, where all this technology we wear will be embedded in our bodies. But ultimately, where I think we’re going in the next couple of decades is to actually move into the replacement phase; where we take perfectly good parts of our body and replace them with something a little bit better.”