Granite Geek: Wearable, Flexible Tech The Next Big Electronic Frontier

Oct 14, 2014

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The next big digital frontier seems to be wearable technology. One example that comes to mind is the newly-announced Apple Watch, but what if the device in question wasn’t a device per se, but electronics built into what you’re already wearing?

Flexible and printed electronics – that’s the topic of this month’s Science Café discussion at Killarney’s in Nashua. The moderator is David Brooks, who writes the weekly Granite Geek science column for the Nashua Telegraph and GraniteGeek.org. He joined All Things Considered with a preview.

Electronics used to be astonishingly large and stationary; now it’s astonishingly small and portable, and it’s happened fairly quickly.

Fairly quickly indeed. There are some who think this is the next step, becoming flexible – and particularly printed, because it can be form-factor, to use the clunky technical term, becomes much more variable when you can get your electronics not on hard, rigid substrate, but on pretty much anything.

We’re in the stage where they’re trying to make printed or flexible electronics work in the real world. I talked to Craig Armiento of U-Mass Lowell, which just opened – and I mean just last week – opened a new research center partly funded by Raytheon. Of course, they’re a big defense contractor down in Massachusetts, and they’re very interested in this field because they do lots of electronics for the Department of Defense, and anything they can do to make it more flexible and lighter is always good. IN particular, he talked about antennas as a big area – Raytheon, they do a lot of stuff that requires antennas, and if they can make those antennas flexible so you can, say, conform them to the shape of the ship or a tank instead of having a large, rigid piece of material that they have to carry around.

In essence, this is about trying to build the technology into our lives instead of building our lives around the technology.

That’s the whole idea – you’ve got this stuff you need for your life anyway, why not have it do some electronic thing at the same time? And a big part of the technology that’s going on right now is the printed aspect of it, which is sort of like 3D printing, in that it kind of uses the same technology that’s used in laserjet printers, a moveable head that squirts stuff onto a substrate in various patterns according to whatever the computer tells it to do. They’re trying to develop ways so that the ink it prints down on is either conductive or isn’t conductive, deliberately, or even has nano-particles in it so it can act kind of like a silicon chip in itself, to the point where you could really print out a chip. That’s still a ways down the road, there’s still an awful lot of technology to be developed, but it’s a really interesting idea.

And then people start imagining the possibilities. As for me, I just keep thinking that like in all those sci-fi movies, eventually we’ll just bypass embedding technology in clothes or devices and just start putting tech into us.

I could see electronic tattoos – digital tattoos coming pretty soon, that change colors, or even change them so they say stuff. So if you need to remember to buy milk on the way home, you could have a tattoo on your right arm that you would program somehow so it would flash “buy milk” at you as you were driving home.

I think you just made electronic organizer makers and the mood ring industry very nervous.

Yeah. And as soon as we hang up here I’m going to go patent it.