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NatureInterface > No.10 > P074-075 [Japanese]

Electron Devices Go Wearable

Electronic Devices for Wearable Equipment

MASAFUMI MORI (Our staff reporter)

The flexible flat-panel display and extremely flexible printed circuit board are being developed. By using these devices wearable PCs and mobile equipment can be designed more user-friendlily for carrying purposes. That brings the increase of technology use at the interface between nature and human.

Somewhat, we are always in contact with the surrounding environment. Carrying IT equipment around in our daily life might be helpful to us in monitoring with various sensors, referring to data, watching, recording, and expressing or taking action on the natural environment. If everyone learns to carry monitoring equipment, an effective environmental monitoring with wide expanse of time and space will be realized and new knowledge might be obtained.

But as we do not usually have a direct objective to observe the environment in our activity, IT equipment to be carried around must be pleasant and hardly noticed. A wristwatch has well-known practicality in this point of view, but it may also be good to thin it down and integrate it with clothes. It could bring a new fashion design.

When we design wearable equipment, not only do we have to pursuit its light weight and small size we also need to devise its form. The flexibility of materials widens design patterns and transmission of information between humans and wearable equipment is another major technological issue. As for its energy source, continuous power generation methods utilizing human motion, solar energy, and thermal effect should be taken into account in addition to the conventional method of using battery.

By the way, the kinds of wearable equipment can be classified depending on the stage of progress. At the first stage, as found at the feature articles in this issue, the equipment is designed for easy carrying by applying conventional electronic devices. This is a little troublesome to use, but its practical use has already been started where the need for wearable equipment is quite high. At the second stage appropriate electronic devices for wearable equipment are specially developed. The equipment is easier to be carried and they soon will be applied for something more than mere working tasks. Equipment should be unified with clothes or bags at the third development stage. It is highly expected that many people will use the equipment. We will have to face a considerable amount of technical matters to be solved, because the shape of equipment must be suitable for the wearer's constant movements. For example, technologies to locate small and thin electronic parts apart and connect them flexibly with mechanical reliability will be necessary. Possibly an element itself, might have to become flexible as an organic transistor.

The equipment born from the development at the first stage is already on the market. The development of electronic devices for the second stage equipment is getting active now. For example, Toshiba Corporation has developed a bendable liquid-crystal display (Fig. A). It can retain high picture quality while being bent flexibly. As for the EL (Electro-Luminescence) display, Pioneer Corporation demonstrated a thin and lightweight film type display that was attached to the clothes at an exhibition in the last autumn. This has attracted many people°«s attention.

Matsushita Electric is currently developing a technology to fabricate ultra-thin multi-layered printed circuit sheet with sub-micron sized electronic devices embedded (Fig. B). It is as thin as only several tens of microns and can be bent easily. Printed circuit boards unified with electronic devices have been expected to improve in order to create smaller and lighter mobile phones with higher quality, and the technology introduced above is something even more flexible.

Also, Alps Electric Corporation has presented a neck-strap, which is an input device with embedded sensors (Fig. C).

In addition to the electric rewritable paper, which is under active development, the strap could be applied to wearable equipment.

By applying these technologies, many kinds of wearable equipment will hopefully appear in the next few years.

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