Scientists, Artists and Designers’ Exploration of Powering Up Our Wearables

Innovations that have overcome obstacles in the field of energy and power management for wearables.

Technology has come a long way when it comes to small and flexible batteries and new protocols like Bluetooth Low Energy. As new technologies continue to be developed, a new generation of batteries to power them is emerging, resulting in wearables becoming more efficient, especially when it comes to power management, an improvement that is key to the overall user experience.

The Godfather of Wearables

Steve Mann, one of the pioneers in this field, said that for a device to be considered a wearable, it should fulfil specific requirements, like be always on and always accessible. According to Mann “[the wearable] is a device that is always with the user, and into which the user can always enter commands and execute a set of such entered commands, and in which the user can do so while walking around or doing other activities. The wearable computer is more than just a wristwatch or regular eyeglasses: it has the full functionality of a computer system, but in addition to being a fully featured computer, it is also inextricably intertwined with the wearer.”

With artists, scientists, and designers starting to think differently about innovations that can bring about a changing impact. They are doing this by exploring and creating new ways to produce, store and manage energy in a wearable device. Here are some innovations that have, in my opinion, found a way around obstacles when it comes to energy and power management.

Captain Electric project by XS Labs

A very distinguish approach on how to generate electricity comes from the XS labs, a design research studio with a focus on innovation in electronic textiles and reactive garments. Back in 2009, they developed a project called Captain Electric. The collection consisted of three dresses that use energy from movement to generate electricity in the form of lights and sound, instead of camouflaging the power-generating mechanisms.

In an interview that I did with founder Joanna Berzowska,  she explained in depth; “The dresses are the result of a development process that included a series of structured brainstorming and body-storming exercises. Very early in the design process, it was decided that we would not attempt to conceal the generators and their operation. Previous work in body-generated power strives to seamlessly integrate generators into wearable artefacts so as not to make their presence “obvious or annoying.” Most often, this is accomplished by harnessing the energy from walking by embedding generators in the soles of shoes. We chose to pursue a different approach, one that is heavily influenced by the field of fashion design. While it is difficult to accept an uncomfortable running shoe or other fitness garments, it is easier to embed the discomfort and the inefficiency of current human-generated power solutions into the culture of fashion and costuming.

She continued “Fashion designers throughout history have distinguished themselves by presenting new silhouettes and trends that constantly surprise and challenge the body. This has been exemplified by devices that include brassieres, bustles, crinoline hoops, and exaggerated shoulder pads as well as more extreme practices that involve deliberate physical deformation of the body. The field of fashion design often embraces discomfort and has been known to tolerate some amount of pain, which inspired us to explore the use of irritation and inconvenience as a means of power generation on the body. The Captain Electric garments focus on alternate definitions of functionality, such as pleasure, fun, and beauty, to allow playful and engaging design concepts, while leveraging the discomfort to influence the conceptual direction of the experience. “

Elena Corchero

solar vintage fan

Solar Vintage (2009) is a collection of the Spanish designer Elena Corchero. She created accessories that use solar cells to capture energy while embellished with fabulous craft skills and smart materials. Her design brought attention to the beauty of the electronics and gave a soft touch to them. The combination of design, craft, and innovative smart materials gives to this collection an special place in our narrative.

Wearable Solar by Pauline van Dongen

Pauline van Dongen’s solar windbreaker

Pauline Van Dongen is a Dutch designer that has consistently presented us with designs that have solar cell technology embedded. The scientists at Holst Institute are responsible for the development of the flexible solar cells that we find in the Van Dongen’s designs. Her pieces are undoubtedly improving regarding generating energy and also on the cloth design that is very urban and surprisingly usable. It is great to see that in every new model the solar cells are being more integrated into the fabric. What started as a pocket housing for the solar cells now also utilizes other technologies that allow more comfort and wearability. Van Dongen brings her expertise on design for the body to the technology, and she is one of the most influentials designers exploring this field.

Pauline also counts with an expert team of collaborators like  Christiaan Holland (Project leader Gelderland Valoriseert from the HAN) and Gert Jan Jongerden (Solar-energy expert).

Energy addicts by Naomi Kizhner

Naomi Kizhner
Naomi Kizhner, mixed media industrial designer.

Our body produces a significant amount of energy while doing daily activities. However, what about to harvest the energy created by unconscious movements like blinking? The Ukraine designer Naomi Kizhner has created a range of accessories capable of harvesting energy directly from the wearer’s body. It deals with the idea of a possible future of exhausting resources that invocates new means of energy harvesting.

The jewellery is attached directly to the skin, giving a creepy feeling. Indeed a powerful speculative design case. Naomi’s collection is a speculation, the devices exist but do not work. However, scientists are researching in this same direction.

Stretchable Biofuel Cells

A team of researchers led by Professor Joseph Wang developed a stretchable fuel cell that can get energy from the sweat. The scientists used lithography and screen printing to create a stretchable nanotube based cathode and anode array where an enzyme that oxidizes the lactic acid present in human sweat generates current.

The researchers were able to power an led for about 4 hours during a bike exercise. It can seem little, but it is ten times more efficient than any other biofuel cell. Besides an led the battery also powered a Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) radio.

This flexible and stretchable biofuel is a breakthrough in the wearable field. The researchers are now investigating a way to increase the energy density and to make the entire system more stable and durable.

Power Watch by Matrix Industries

Most of the researches in energy harvesting and new types of batteries are still confined to laboratories and did not hit the market yet. Most but not all. Recently I have been at the Wear It Festival in Berlin, and I had the chance to hear from Nicole Cifani, the VP of Business Development of Matrix industries,  about IoT and wearables powered by the heat. Imagine a wearable that never needs a charge! That is what you can have. They developed the Power Watch. The power watch is a powered by thermoelectric generator technology (TEG) that was perfected during 5 years until being market ready. Their technology is based on silicon nanotechnology and features a unique blend of low thermal conductivity and high electrical conductivity that, combined with an optimized boost converter, deliver useable output voltage levels.

Also Read: Small Metallic Tab Harnesses Body Energy To Produce Power for Wearables

All these fantastic technologies can make us dream of a future of clean and sustainable energy sources. But if you want to build the future yourself instead of waiting for it, a good start is to check the documentation of an energy harvesting workshop facilitated by Beam during the e-textile Summer camp. There you will find instructions and examples of how to harvest energy from the sun, wind, muscle, body or even more exotic sources.

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Ricardo O'Nascimento

Ricardo O'Nascimento is the founder of POPKALAB - a design/research studio focused on innovation in the field of wearable technology. He is an artist and researcher in the field of new media and interactive art. He investigates body-environment relations focused on interface development for worn devices, interactive installations, and hybrid environments.