5 amazing innovations that will transform wearable tech

The future of wearables will be defined by these materials, sensors and devices
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Wearable tech is already making revolutionary steps, but we always like to gaze into the future to see what's coming next. The innovations that are going to make the current crop of smartwatches, fitness trackers and smart clothing more cutting edge.

Over the next year, the next five years, the next decade we'll see innovations that will knock wearable tech off its current charted course. A course that from up in the clouds looks suspiciously like it's headed towards making the smartphone all over again, only smaller and strapped to our wrists.

Essential reading: Here's what wearables will measure in the future

In university labs, swanky studios and locked bedrooms, scientists, inventors and designers are working to determine what we'll be wearing in the future. Here's what they're up to.

Flexible sensors get kinetic


StretchSense is a start-up spin-off from Auckland University that's building stretchable capacitive sensors with the potential to be used for wearables in sport, animation, VR and healthcare. Its CEO Ben O'Brien described the material as "rubber hands with Bluetooth."

We've already had a glimpse at the stretchable sensor future on the catwalk, with American fashion label Chromat, and through Heddeko (above), a fitness clothing range that monitors full body movement.

Its soft, stretchy form is going to be a big deal for smart clothing, making it easier to sew the sensors into garments to monitor and measure motion. Where things get really interesting is the potential that this clothing could even generate electrical energy from the human body. That would open the door for truly kinetic powered tech, although we're still waiting to see any examples of that.

A team at Korea University are taking things further by developing an almost clear sensor that's able to conduct electricity. If smart clothing is the future, then these developments are going to be key to how it takes shape.

Chemical detecting carbon


We often talk about wearable sensors in terms of the ways they can improve their monitoring of our bodies and our behaviour, but you can expect to hear more about the ways in which they can help to detect potentially harmful environments.

A team of researchers at MIT has developed a wearable sensor that is able to detect trace amounts of toxic gas. Weighing less than a piece of paper, the sensor is built from a series of carbon nanotubes – a material that also has a part to play in making wearable sensors more flexible – wrapped up in insulating material. When exposed to certain toxic gases, the nanotubes are able to send a signal that's read by a smartphone to raise the alarm.

The technology is geared towards security and personal safety and could be a perfect fit for soldiers out on the battlefield, but the use of carbon nanotubes could also prove vital for developing sensors that could be hugely beneficial in the medical industry as well.

Ultrasensitive nanosensors


If wearables can track the vibrations of male spiders rubbing their bellies on leaves, it will be a big win. That's because tiny mechanical motors, based on the lyriform organs in the legs of female spiders who detect these vibrations, have been designed by researchers in South Korea. And they have lots of potential.

The Seoul National University scientists published details of the nanosensors, made from placing ultrathin layers of platinum onto polymers to create 'cracks', in the science journal Nature.

Ultrasensitive wearable devices that could use this durable, flexible technology include wrist-based heart rate sensors that are almost invisible to the eye and a device that detects the throat movements of speech-impaired people to allow them to speak.

Graphene everywhere


This wonder (nano) material is made up of a single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal pattern and it's a go-to material for researchers working on displays, batteries and even bionic implants. It's flexible, transparent, stronger than steel and more conductive to electrical charge than silicon.

Read this: Why wearables are waiting for Graphene

Hoping to shake up the future of bionics and health tracking, researchers at Imperial College London have been working with the material to develop a synthetic skin, with the potential to create super-sensitive artificial skin. We recently met with SweatSmart, a US based startup that is developing a wearable sensor that can work out how you sweat.

Samsung has already shown in recent years that it is able to produce large enough quantities of graphene that still conducts electricity and believes the material can double battery life on its devices. Expect to hear much more about this wonder material.

Always on analogue devices


The battery life of the current crop of wearables varies wildly from one day to six days to six months. That's why the button-sized Intel Curie chip is going to play a big part in the future of wearable tech.

Thanks to its low power foundations, it's always listening and sensing while using almost no power – it's effectively asleep while continuously monitoring, so it's not draining the battery.

It's a novel way of looking at battery life that doesn't bluntly choose between analogue and digital devices. We've already seen the chip appear on the catwalk at New York Fashion Week on stage with Lady Gaga at the Grammys in her David Bowie tribute and was used to stream data from athletes at this year's Winter X Games.

How we test


Sophie was Wareable's associate editor. She joined the team from Stuff magazine where she was an in-house reviewer. For three and a half years, she tested every smartphone, tablet, and robot vacuum that mattered. 

A fan of thoughtful design, innovative apps, and that Spike Jonze film, she is currently wondering how many fitness tracker reviews it will take to get her fit. Current bet: 19.

Sophie has also written for a host of sites, including Metro, the Evening Standard, the Times, the Telegraph, Little White Lies, the Press Association and the Debrief.

She now works for Wired.

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