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Graphene and printed electronics could usher in truly discreet wearables

Posted by wicked May - 21 - 2015 - Thursday Comments Off

Flexible OLED Wearables

The wearables market is in full swing, with a wide range of fitness trackers and smartwatches now on the market. However, the form factor is still perhaps not ideal, as bulky electronics have to be squeezed in behind a watch face. In the future, this type of issue could be solved by recent developments in the world of flexible electronics.

Material developments for printed electronics are being hailed as the revolution needed to make cheap, printed, flexible electronics circuit a reality. As the forefront of this research is the magical material known as graphene, which boasts exceptional electrical, mechanical and optical properties at a thickness of just one atom.

Graphene wearable electronics

You can see a small strand of the material in the bottom left of the picture, which is transferring current to the red LED.

In one of the latest developments, researchers from the University of Exeter have managed to embed transparent, flexible graphene electrodes into fibers widely used within the textile industry.

The technique allows for the transfer graphene from the copper foils to a polypropylene fibre, a material suitable for clothing. This means that electrical signals can be transferred throughout pieces of fabric without being seen by the wearer and without impacting the flexibility of the material.

This breakthrough could go a long way towards shrinking down the size of wearable electronics. Some parts of circuity could be embedded into fabric parts, such as a watchstrap, gloves, or other items of clothing.


“The possibilities for its use are endless, including textile GPS systems, to biomedical monitoring, personal security or even communication tools for those who are sensory impaired.”
Professor Monica Craciun, University of Exeter

Similarly, researchers from the University of Manchester, together with BGT Materials Limited, have managed to use graphene ink to print a radio frequency antenna, suitable for practical use in RFID tags and wireless sensors. As it’s printed, it’s entirely flexible and cheap to mass produce. Printed nano-inks and other conductive inks also have positive implications for flexible display technologies, as they can be printed at a low cost and increase the flexibility of the screen backplane over existing TFT materials.

Flexible Battery Types

Left: Samsung Gear Fit battery Center: rechargeable zn-based battery Right: ultra-thin and flexible LiPON

Of course, we’re still going to need small form factor, flexible batteries to power this type of technology. Fortunately there are selection of developments that may find use in these type of wearable applications, including rechargeable printed zinc metal oxide and lithium phosphorus oxynitride (LiPON) designs.

However, these technologies are still being worked on to fit into the size, weight, and power constraints needed for demanding consumer computer applications. Furthermore, the next real challenge with flexible battery technology will be to reduce the costs associated with some of the most promising implementations.

Flexible Battery Benchmark

These technologies have far wider reaching implications than just consumer electronics though. The medical and defense industries are both expected to benefit greatly from wearable innovations, as embedded, flexible and wearable electronics will allow for small form factor wearable computers.

We’re still a way off from the first consumer products, but we’re edging closer to a future full of discreet wearable electronics.

Samsung and Samsonite working on smart luggage that can check itself in

Posted by wicked May - 4 - 2015 - Monday Comments Off

luggage

“Smart luggage” is not an entirely new concept, but Samsung and Samsonite, a purely coincidental name, are looking to make the formula much more popular with a new range of affordable and more accessible smart bags.

The two aim to provide luggage with embedded microprocessors that can be tracked through GPS, which you may appreciate if you’ve ever lost a bag at an airport, and can offer anti-tampering alerts to warn you if someone has attempted to open your bag. Presumably, Samsung is getting involved to provide the mobile link to your luggage and will be providing much of the behind the scenes software, while Samsonite will be looking to integrate the technology into some of its existing bags or a new range.

‘Smart luggage will be able to communicate with you but it needs to be able to do much more than just give its location’ … ‘We are working with Samsung to create something that is more than a gimmick.’ – Samsonite chief executive Ramesh Tainwala

Furthermore, Samsonite is working with airlines on a self-check-in feature, which will automatically provide the airport with baggage information to ensure the correct destination and airline, and to check the bag’s weight against any limits. Talks with Emirates, Lufthansa and KLM Air France are said to be in the works.

If you’re looking for something even more futuristic, the firm is also working on a project to develop ‘self-propelling’ luggage. But it’s not really that practical yet, as the engine takes up a third of the bag’s space and weighs 20 kilos!

3 atom thick material breakthrough could lead to ultra-thin processors

Posted by wicked May - 1 - 2015 - Friday Comments Off

emBed Cortex M3 underside

Researchers from Cornell University have announced a breakthrough in transition metal dichalcogenide (TMD) production that could lead to much thinner transistors, the building block for faster, smaller and more power efficient processors.

TMDs are promising materials for future semi-conductors, solar cell and light detector technologies as they are incredibly thin. This is especially important as integrated circuit and processor producers look to push the boundaries of silicon below the 10nm processes. New materials will be needed if manufacturers wish to extend Moore’s Law. This technology may sound familiar to graphene, and both can be used to produce very thin film layers for electronics. Highly conductive TMD films can be produced which measure just three atoms thick, but the issue is that they are easy to break and suffer from high failure rates.

“Our work pushes TMDs to the technologically relevant scale, showing the promise of making devices on that scale,”… “In principle there is no barrier toward [commercial viability].” – Saien Xie, paper author

This is where the breakthrough comes in, as researchers from Cornell have managed to produce a new industrial technique known as “metal organic chemical vapor deposition (or MOCVD). The technique mixes iethylsulfide and a metal hexacarbonyl compound atop a silicon wafer and then bakes them at 550 degrees for 26 hours in hydrogen gas. This method has been tested on a batch of 200 wafers and only two of them were faulty, which is a 99 percent success rate and a promising sign for this process.

However, a larger sample size is needed before the technique can be confirmed as consistent and the temperature of production is too high for other components at the moment. There’s still more research to be done and this technology is still a number of years away from commercial viability, but it’s very promising nonetheless. The video below is quite insightful if you want to know more about TMDs.

KETI’s ultra-thin OLED is a precursor to foldable smartphones

Posted by wicked April - 10 - 2015 - Friday Comments Off

Highly-flexible OLED electrode

Researchers at the Korea Electronics Technology Institute (KETI) have announced the world’s most flexible, ultra-thin OLED electrode material, which can be folded at an angle thinner than a strand of hair (0.1mm), leading the way towards ultra-flexible displays. Flexible OLED technology is the secret behind Samsung’s Galaxy Edge smartphones and LG’s G Flex range, which has opened up new ergonomic designs for mobile products.

The new technology was created by fusing silver nano wire with a colorless polyimide in the OLED panel, rather than using Indium tin oxide, which easily cracks when bent. Previously, silver nano wires had not been used in flexible OLED displays because they produce a rough surface. This problem was solved by placing the wire in the polymer substrate and then smoothing the surface using plasma irradiation. Previously the maximum curve radius of flexible OLED was around 5mm, so this is a substantial improvement.

“With this OLED electrode material, smartphones can be rolled and fully folded like paper,” – Korea Electronics Technology Institute

Flexible OLED elementThe technology has already undergone some rather rigorous testing. Researchers say that the material can survive 100,000 folds before breaking, which would allow users to open up an ultra-foldable smartphone 100 times a day for two years consistently before breaking.

Furthermore, the OLED has excellent performance properties. The transmission of visible light reaches 90 percent and sheet resistance reached 8 ohm/sq, handily above the industry criteria of 85 percent transmission and 15 ohm resistance to be classed as a foldable material.

“We are currently discussing mass production with major chemical material manufacturers in Korea, expecting that a fully-foldable smartphone will be available on a commercial scale within two years to come.”

KETI anticipates that this breakthrough could lead to the first commercially available foldable smartphone within just two years. However, we have no idea what such a device would look like or how it would function, and wearables or electronic paper seem like more suitable uses for this technology in the near future.

We are still waiting on major breakthroughs in other areas of flexible electronics before we can talk about a competitor to today’s high-end devices. Even so, this is a promising step forward for ultra-flexible electronics.

Caltech sensor could turn your phone into a 3D scanner

Posted by wicked April - 6 - 2015 - Monday Comments Off

Hajimiri-CCI-3D scanning

3D printing technology is gradually becoming slightly more affordable, but we’re not all CAD experts and a cheap 3D scanner to help produce our own objects remains elusive. Fortunately, CalTech researchers, working under electrical engineer Ali Hajimiri, are working on a new “nanophotonic coherent imager” (NCI) that may one day allow users to scan 3D images with just their smartphone.

The tiny NCI chip measures less than a square millimetre and is based on Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) technology, which beams a laser onto a subject and analyses the light waves reflected back. From this data, the sensor can provide accurate height, width and depth information for each pixel in the shot. Typically, image sensors are only interested in the light intensity of each pixel, which doesn’t offer any distance information.

Each “pixel” within the sensor is a LIDAR, allowing for multiple data points to analyse the phase, frequency and intensity of the reflected waves. Combining all the data together forms a detailed 3D image, which is apparently accurate to within microns of the original scene. Here’s the explanation of how it works:

If two light waves are coherent, the waves have the same frequency, and the peaks and troughs of light waves are exactly aligned with one another. In the NCI, the object is illuminated with this coherent light. The light that is reflected off of the object is then picked up by on-chip detectors, called grating couplers, that serve as “pixels,” as the light detected from each coupler represents one pixel on the 3-D image. On the NCI chip, the phase, frequency, and intensity of the reflected light from different points on the object is detected and used to determine the exact distance of the target point.

As promising as the technology is, the first proof of concept chip produced in the lab only has 16 LIDAR pixels in the sensor and is therefore only capable of capturing small image segments. The 3D coin image, picture above, required movement of the camera in between shots, but the development team is working on scaling up the technology into a larger sensor. In the future, Hajimiri says, that the current array of 16 pixels could also be easily scaled up to hundreds of thousands of pixels, enough for a low resolution camera.

This 3D scanner technology is already found in self-driving cars and robots, and, thanks to this research, will perhaps one day make its way into our smartphones too.

Ossia Cota promises wireless charging via Wi-Fi and Bluetooth

Posted by wicked April - 1 - 2015 - Wednesday Comments Off

Cota WiFi wireless charging

Although still struggling for broad adoption, wireless charging technology has been steadily gaining steam. In fact, the new Samsung Galaxy S6 supports both PMA and WPC standards, but there are some other interesting and promising technologies on the horizon, too. Today Ossia Inc. announced its latest breakthrough in its Cota remote wireless power system, allowing for wireless power to be integrated into almost any WiFi or Bluetooth equipped device.

Unlike current PMA and WPC charging standards, which operate over short distances, Cota enables wireless charging at distances up to 30 feet. Cota makes use of signals in the WiFi and Bluetooth spectrum to transfer wireless power at greater distances. Cota can provide 1 watt of power to charge your gadget, which is about a third of the power offered through a USB connection. Furthermore, Ossia’s Cota promises to make use of existing antenna circuitry in devices, making it simple and affordable for OEMs to add remote wireless power to existing Wi-Fi or Bluetooth equipped devices. All that’s apparently needed is a small conversion chip. While not lightning fast, hassle free overnight charging and regular wireless top-ups throughout the day make this a tantalizing prospect.

As you might expect, Cota technology brings with it new charger and receiver parts. The tiny IC receivers can be built into devices, or even batteries, and regularly send out omnidirectional beacon signals to direct power from the charger. Once the Cota charger receives the signal, it returns thousands of targeted low power signals at location of the receiving device. Cota can even power multiple devices at once. If you’re worried about safety, Ossia says that its technology produces a signal no stronger than a mobile phone during a call.

Cota charging chip

The vision is to allow for automatic wireless charging in your home, office, or when grabbing a drink in your local coffee shop. We’re not just talking smartphones here, all manner of low power electronic devices could be powered by the technology.

Ossia will be licensing its design to OEMs and ODMs, who can then build their own transmitters and implement the receiver into their products. Cota sounds like another promising solution for limited mobile battery life, and the small, easy to implement charging chip could be the breakthrough this technology needs.

We’ll have to wait and see if the company can successfully bring its product to market, which is quickly filling up with competing wireless power products. What do you think, intrigued or not?

Razer to integrate Leap Motion hand tracking into is OSVR headset

Posted by wicked March - 25 - 2015 - Wednesday Comments Off

Razer OSVR with Leap Motion

Virtual reality has been in the spot light a lot in the past twelve months, with HTC entering the market with Valve, Samsung partnering up with the Facebook owned Oculus, and Razer announcing its OSVR headset too. Razer recently unveiled a load of gaming related goodies and has now entered into a partnership with Leap Motion, who will be providing built in motion sensors for the OSVR headset.

The key to great VR is said to be in the little immersive details. Not just accurate head tracking and a clear display resolution, but by making the user feel like they are interacting with the space. Leap Motion’s hand tracking technology, seen in video below, should help directly connect the user’s movements to their VR experience, potentially ending the need for controllers or remotes too.

As well as offering new ways to react with the VR world, Leap Motion’s technology allows for headsets to blend virtual and real world images together for an augmented reality type experience. This potentially opens up the scope of closed face headsets and could help solve issues regarding seeing your controller, keyboard or surroundings while gaming.

To begin with, the Leap Motion tracker will be available as an optional faceplate for the OSVR hardware developer kit, with a fully embedded implementation set to follow. The company has a similar, separate faceplate setup already available for the Oculus Rift D1 and D2 headsets. Leap Motion is also said to be looking to partner up with more VR headsets in the future, as its technology seems like a natural fit for VR.

A consumer Leap Motion enabled VR headset won’t be available for a while yet, but the OSVR developer kit should be appearing for pre-orders in May, with a shipping date scheduled for June.

SolidEnergy smaller battery

Smartphone specifications are better than ever, but battery technology has remained stagnant for years. Fortunately, engineers share our complaints and SolidEnergy, another start-up to come out of MIT, is boasting a new battery design that will hopefully lengthen our smartphone usage times. The technology promises twice the energy density of today’s traditional lithium-ion batteries.

SolidEnergy’s new technology works by replacing the battery’s conventional graphite anode material with an ultra-thin sheet of lithium copper metal foil. The benefit here is that this greatly reduces the size of the battery for the same capacity, allowing the saved space to be used for extra capacity.

SolidEngery battery size

The use of lithium-metal electrodes in batteries has been the subject of research for many years, but there have previously been some technical barriers to their viability. Typically, lithium metal can react with battery electrolytes, which over time prevents current from flowing and leads to battery capacity degradation. The reaction also creates dendrites, which can short circuit the battery and ignite the flammable electrolyte.

To overcome these rather major problems, SolidEnergy uses both regular liquid and less reactive solid electrolytes, allowing for suitable conduction without the problematic reactions. A very thin layer of solid electrolyte is applied to the lithium metal foil in the anode, which is thin enough to avoid the lack of conduction usually associate with a thick solid layer while avoiding the short circuit issues of using lithium metals. The video below explains this different approach.

This new technology isn’t only about saving space, SolidEnergy has also successfully demonstrated superior capacity retention over successive charge cycles than competing advanced Li-ion technology. Over 100 recharge cycles, SolidEnergy’s battery retained 80 percent of its original energy storage capacity, meaning that non-replaceable batteries won’t be such a problem in the future.

The first commercial battery using this technology is scheduled to arrive for smartphones and tablets in 2016, with larger batteries for the electric automotive industry to follow.

Sense object recognition could create a limitless, interactive encyclopaedia

Posted by wicked January - 16 - 2015 - Friday Comments Off

sense_brain

Informative augmented reality with a full encyclopaedia’s worth data at your fingertips has been the promise of many smart products and wearables, such as Google Glass, but object recognition software and the necessary libraries that go with it haven’t made their way into many consumer products yet. However, Sense, an intelligent cloud-based recognition engine being developed by British Cambridge-based startup Neurence, could help bridge this gap.

Sense works as an online database that comprises of information input by its users. It is being used to build up an encyclopaedia of video, image, audio and text data for use with third party application. Data can be submitted to the master library through smart devices using Neurence’s Taggar app, which is available to download from Google Play.

From there, Neurence plans to offer apps and users access to its database, which can be used as a search engine for products, places, and various types of media, depending on how the app-developer chooses to integrate Sense. Potential applications include informing users about the history of a place or object, linking them up to online shops where they can buy said object, or launching a video trailer for a movie after scanning a poster.

The program is still in its early stages, but Neurence is already working with six device developers. These include big names like Google and Samsung, so Sense may end up integrated in smart products in the not too distant future.

I’ll leave you with the video below, which gives some idea of what Sense could be used for.

Keyssa’s “kiss connectivity” technology could make cords obsolete

Posted by wicked November - 17 - 2014 - Monday Comments Off

Keyssa-Kiss-Connectivity

A lot of time is often spent debating what the next big breakthrough in smartphones and computing will be, and while some ideas are certainly bold and ambitious, the fact remains that “breakthrough” technology often comes in the forms of “faster,” “bigger,” or “more power efficient” (i.e processors, graphic chips, etc). While these feats are certainly impressive, industry analysts continue to ponder what the next big thing could be. Well it turns out that a company named Keyssa has developed a technology called “Kiss Connectivity” that could effectively take everything we currently know about data transfer, and throw it out the door.

What is Kiss Connectivity?

Eric Almgren is head of the very secretive Silicon Valley startup known as Keyssa, and he recently demonstrated something very interesting. He took a high definition 1080p copy of Avatar (which generally takes around a minute to copy from a USB stick to a Surface tablet) and put it on a hard disk that uses the company’s wireless connector (Kiss Connectivity). He then placed it a few millimeters away from a Dell tablet that uses the same wireless Kiss Connectivity technology, and tapped them together, which triggered a high bandwidth data exchange. The result? The movie was transferred from the hard disk to the tablet within 5 seconds.

Now you might be asking, “how would this affect how smartphones are built?”. Before answering that, let’s step back to really look at what Keyssa has done here. We are looking at something that not only affects smartphones, but computing in general. One could argue that this is the next evolutionary step in USB, Bluetooth, and NFA, and changes the game on transferring data while opening up a world of new possibilities. The concept is so interesting, that Samsung and Intel Capital are both backing the project, which could have huge implications on how data is transferred.

Effect on the smartphone industry

Imagine a smartphone that has no ports. I’m talking zero. No micro USB for charging, no headphone jack, nothing. A completely waterproof sealed up smartphone that could move, transfer, and share gigs and gigs of data within seconds by simply bumping devices. Imagine taking wireless charging to all new levels of speed and efficiency That would all be possible with this new technology (when working in conjunction with other standards), which is in essence a new standard all together.

The connectors used in Keyssa’s wireless Kiss Connectivity are currently able to transfer up to 6 gigs of data per second. To put things in perspective, the latest WiFi standard can handle up to 1.35 gigs a second, and that’s assuming that no one else is using the network. The fastest USB standard currently tops out at 5 gigs a second, and NFC around 400 kilobits a second.

A pretty big jump indeed (and it’s wireless).

Keyssa has currently raised over 40 million dollars and and has around 40 people working on this project. The company’s chairman of the board is Tony Fadell, father of the iPod and head of Nest Labs, the smart appliances company that Google bought in January for over 3 $billion. While we don’t have a time frame for exactly when this technology could roll out, we do know that there are already “top tier” companies that are testing and using this technology as we speak (the startup didn’t want to mention which companies currently have the technology), and that it is scheduled to start appearing in devices in 2015 . Fadell stated back in 2011 that “if this thing works, you are looking at the holy grail”. It seems as if Keyssa just may have found it.

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