When you think about it, us humans are pretty pathetic, with our flabby fat and stretchable skin that can be bested by the might of paper. Our technology is the opposite. It's boxy and solid.
Silicon, that brittle crystalline, is a wonderful semiconductor and has become one of the core pieces of the technological revolution over the past 40 years. All of our devices use it, from desktops to phones to wearables.
Sihong Wong, Ph.D and postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University's department of chemical engineering, doesn't think silicon is a good fit for our wearable future.
Like our bodies, our clothes are soft and malleable, not stiff. So why would we base the next generation of wearable devices on a material better suited to non-wearable tech? Thus, Wong and his group at Stanford embarked on creating stretchable sensors, getting an assist from Samsung in the process.
The revolution will be stretchable
"The goal is to make the electronics mimic the nature of the skin, especially the mechanical nature," Wong tells me. He points to my Apple Watch and says that current wearable devices leave a gap between the device and the human body.
That gap, he argues, attenuates any signal from the body to the device, harming its accuracy. The closer your device is to the skin, the less chance of something getting in the way and distorting the signal.
"Once we integrate these electronics with the human body there is a very big mechanical mismatch with the human being," Wong says. "Our target is to eliminate this mismatch."
Wong takes me to the small, rectangular lab, filled with undergrads and postgrads bustling around, soldering and testing things. He soon hands me a small square about the size of a Ritz cracker. It's floppy and stretchable and can best be described as a sliver of non-wet jello. It's also filled with 108 transistors.
This is part of a new class of materials that could host sensors to tell you your pulse, ECG and more. It would be able to eliminate the mismatch and provide more accurate sensors as a second skin, as well as be able to implant directly into the human body. Essentially, it's a new platform for wearable devices that Wong says can "realize a lot of previously unachievable functionalities of the human body."
Because the new material can also be laced with stretchable displays (no wonder Samsung is involved) it can also be used to display information in real time. Eventually, once studies of galvanic skin response and medical biomarkers in sweat advance, that'll mean diagnosing conditions in real time too.
Since these new stretchable electronics are soft and pliable, they also might be better for implants. That's because getting an implant can actually confuse your body. Even though those implanted devices - like a pacemaker - are working to track you closely, your body's foreign body response is activated. This effect could be lessened.
"You can really make these devices as soft as the organ itself, then you can kind of trick the organ to think it's part of the organ to minimize the foreign body response," Wong says.
The same effect could be used for reducing how invasive surgeries are. Think of it like one of those Casper mattresses: you could fold up the stretchable sensor and then pop it into your body, then it would expand and sit on the organ or bone it needs to. Surgery, which obviously takes a massive toll on the body, can be more limited.
Finally, the stretchables could be used to line prosthetic limbs, as Wong and his team realized that the transistor resolution it achieved is similar to the amount of touch receptors in human skin. Eventually, he says, you could be able to link the stretchable sensor on a prosthetic arm to the brain and give people a sense of touch back.
Wong's team has been working on the project for three and a half years, and it's also developed a manufacturing platform to help manufacturers make the switch from silicon-based electronics to its new polymer-based stretchable electronics. The entire project has been a multi-team effort at Stanford, with teams working on power sources and material sciences.
And then there's the BodyNet team, which is trying to find applications for stretchable wearables that haven't been thought of yet.
Giving people superpowers
In the past year, it's become clear that there are unintended consequences to the best technology. The goal of social media is to be able to bring the world closer together, to give a voice to the voiceless, yet it's also been used to divide us.
Enter BodyNet, a project by Stanford's design research lab. It takes a look at different types of wearables, from current wearables to stretchables, implants, and smart clothes, and imagines a world where they tie together into a system called BodyNet. Bryant Chu, a product design engineer at Stanford who has since graduated, tells Wareable the big idea is to try to give people superpowers.
"Back when we started working on [BodyNet] we were like, '[these wearables don't] seem to be catching on', and we were wondering why," Chu says. "So after doing a little bit of digging and some user interviews we found out that most of the abilities that people were getting from wearables then were all data-based. What we found is that people were more interested in having new abilities rather than measurements going on."
So the team took Wong's stretchable electronic idea and ran with it. The concepts and prototypes range in scope and ambition, from something as simple as a glove that can detect temperature, giving you haptic feedback to tell you how hot or cold something is - to upending human communication by using augmented reality to tell you exactly how someone is feeling.
The entire goal is to enhance human qualities. Chu and the team realized that some superpowers, like moving objects, could be used to harm other individuals, so it decided to focus on enhancing human abilities, emotions, and experiences. Sensing temperature is one of them, another one is pregnancy.
You could, Chu explains, put a stretchable display on a mother's arm. That display would be linked to an ultrasound scanner on the mother's tummy, allowing for live feedback. No need to go out and check in with a doctor periodically.
It could be extended to placing a physical sensor on the mother's tummy, then placing a linked sensor on the father's tummy. When the baby kicks, that information would be relayed and simulated for the father - so that they could both feel the baby's kicks at the same time.
The tech could even be used to tell the mother the difference between a false contraction and a real one, sending an alert to a hospital to get ready for an incoming mother in labor. Once the baby is born, BodyNet could be paired with AI to send notifications to the parents while they take care of the baby. For example, if a baby cries and the mother has a lack of sleep, it could route notifications to the father instead, not even waking up the mother and doing away with sleepy "it's your turn" conversations in the middle of the night.
That is really the heart of BodyNet. "A lot of the thinking was trying to take away a lot of the friction in everyday things, or doing things that weren't yet possible for us as human beings with five senses," Chu explains as he puts me through two simulations of BodyNet's end-goal, which would link the BodyNet's of people all around the world to create a gigantic social network.
Because BodyNet has sensors all around you picking up information like your stress level, heart rate and more, it can display that to everyone around you via augmented reality. The idea is that one day, when AR is commonplace, you would be able to look at someone and learn about them based on their BodyNet information.
The amount of information would be determined by your own privacy settings. You'd be able to control who sees what and how much they see. You could even opt out and show nothing at all if you wanted.
I was near a man who had a clock emoji above his head. I instantly knew that he was busy and that I probably shouldn't bother him
The design research lab used AR and VR, via HoloLens and HTC Vive, to prototype these systems with people. The initial system would display text next to a person telling you their status, their heart rate and how they were related to you. It also featured AR shields, which are thin white bubbles placed around people. These shields indicated the level of privacy someone had enabled. So if they were a complete stranger, the shields would be thicker. If they were your close family member or spouse, they would be thinner.
That was overloading testers with too much information, Chu says. The shields were making people feel like they couldn't approach anyone for invading their personal space. The text was too distracting, because you'd want to constantly read it instead of paying attention to someone.
The next iteration played with using beloved emojis as status indicators. For instance, I was near a man who had a clock emoji above his head. I instantly knew that he was busy and that I probably shouldn't bother him. I could choose my own emoji, so I chose coffee - I was feeling a bit tired and needed a boost.
The big idea is to augment natural human awareness
Chu then showed me a rough and unfinished version of a system that was far simpler. Rather than have emojis floating above their head, you'll see dots on people's chests. BodyNet uses the information it has about you, like galvanic skin response and heart rate, to change the color and size of your dot, which tells people around you how you're feeling. In this way, it could alert people that you're stressed - or that you simply don't want to talk to anyone.
This could could be useful for giving social cues. Someone says something to make you angry? Your dot would turn red. But if you were open to someone approaching you, it would be green. If you were starting to feel uncomfortable with someone, it could turn yellow. If you wanted privacy, you could deactivate your dot entirely.
The big idea here is to augment natural human awareness. We already read facial expressions and body language to determine whether it's Ok to approach someone, or whether a conversation has overstayed its welcome. This system would reduce the number of social faux pas.
A needed conversation
Stretchable electronics and the worlds they could create are rife with terrible consequences. Constant monitoring of a baby could create anxiety in parents, who check in on their newborn non-stop.
BodyNet's social system feels like a utopia for the connected. It could help us avoid awkward moments and have more efficient communication. In dating dating, Chu suggests that people could see when they're making someone uncomfortable and back off. These are things that sound wonderful and useful, but there are also unintended consequences we haven't thought about yet.
The idea is that you wanna find out what all the scary things are to prevent those things
But what happens when advertisers want to use this information? How do we humans adjust when we can see exactly what people think of us, rather than them being nice and letting us down easy? What about mothers who are concerned too many ultrasounds are bad for their babies?
These are important questions, and they're questions BodyNet wants to inspire. Chu says the idea is to start a conversation about the next generation of technology, so that we can collectively solve these problems before they crop up and it the damage is already done.
"We totally admit is that it could be super scary, but the idea is that you wanna find out what all the scary things are to prevent those things before it goes out into the world."