Enabling Smart Wearable Technology: Flexible, Stretchable Interconnect


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Breakthroughs in wearable electronics are driving exciting, innovative applications in the health, wellness, safety and entertainment markets. But as the user experience matures, product design is driven as much by fashion and style as it is by form, fit, and function. The human-centric element has created a paradigm for the printed circuit, interconnect designers and fabricators. No longer is the printed circuit a mechanically static, controlled-environment technology. Now it must survive continuous dynamic stresses brought on by flexing, bending, twisting, stretching and dropping in an uncontrolled use environment. This article highlights the current and forward-looking interconnect technologies enabling the stream of amazing new smart wearable electronic devices connecting the user to their personalized experience.

Background

Wearable technology is not new. Anyone who experienced the 1970s remembers the Mood Ring, designed with a thermotropic liquid crystal material inside or surrounding the stone of the ring that changed color as the wearer’s body temperature changed. The colors inferred the various moods of the user: blue for calm, violet for happy, black for tense, and so on. The wearer had visual feedback with which they could choose to alter his mood.

The advent of the Internet and the World Wide Web began to revolutionize culture and commerce, initially through instant communication such as electronic mail, instant messaging, voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), social networking and online shopping. By the late 1990s, physical objects (things) were embedded with electronics, such as software and sensors, and connected to the Internet and thus the Internet of Things (IoT) was born.

According to Gartner Inc., by the year 2020, there will be approximately 26 billion devices on the Internet of Things. In 2014, the Pew Research Center Internet Project canvassed technology experts and Internet users about the evolution of embedded devices and the Internet/Cloud of Things by 2025. Eighty-three percent of the respondents agreed that Internet of Things will have widespread and beneficial effects on the everyday lives of the public by 2025.

According to the Global Wearable Technology Market Research Report 2018, “The global wearable technology market stood at $750 million in 2012 and is expected to reach $5.8 billion in 2018, at a CAGR of 40.8% from 2012-2018. North America is expected to maintain its lead position at 43% of the global wearable technology revenue share in 2018 followed by Europe”. And from the Wearable Electronics and Technology Market by Applications, “The overall wearable electronics and technology market is estimated to grow $11.61 billion by the end of 2020 at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 24.56%, from 2014 to 2020”. Based on current market analysis and technology spends, wearable technology is anchored in the future of the IoT.

With the evolution of the IoT, advancements in personal computing technologies have driven printed circuit and printed electronics technology enhancements, power management improvements, wireless module development and overall miniaturization, creating mobile communication devices that fit in the palm of one’s hand. The smart phone has enabled personalization of information, social connections and entertainment.

Today, wearable technology has enabled smart, connected devices for personal health and wellness, enhancement of one’s safety and the ability to form an individualized entertainment experience. This personal ecosystem is often hubbed by one’s smart phone, with information stored on the Cloud and conveniently shared with social networks. The Internet of Things is morphing into the age of the "Intelligence of Things". As more and more wearable electronics connect to the Internet and provide electronic feedback to support our health, wellness, safety and entertainment decisions, this phenomenon is driving the next age—one of smart, connected living.

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Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of The PCB Magazine.

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