Zenneck surface waves weave wearable tech

If last month’s Consumer Electronics Show is anything to go by, we will soon be covered in wearable technology, from health monitors to smart watches. But there’s a problem: how do we get them to communicate?

Traditionally, devices talk to one another either using wires, which are inconvenient, or Bluetooth, which is prone to interference. Now a new wireless technique that uses a phenomenon known as Zenneck surface waves could be the answer.

This type of electromagnetic wave stays at the interface between the surface of an object and the air, rather than travelling through open space. Radar systems have used them to see around the curvature of the Earth, but communicating in this way is a first.

Janice Turner and colleagues at Roke Manor Research in Romsey, UK, have created a demonstration system that uses the waves to send high-definition video over a short length of material. It has a bandwidth of up to 1.5 gigabits per second, making it almost three times faster than Wi-Fi. The signal does not travel through the material but rather over its surface for a few centimetres.

Turner’s team has worked with a fabric made of a dielectric-coated conducting material. This could be tailored into a jacket to enable worn devices to communicate in a personal network.

For example, a lapel camera, a wrist display and a pulse-monitor bracelet could all communicate through the jacket via surface waves. Other devices such as smartphones could attach automatically simply by being placed in a pocket. Zenneck wave-enabled devices could be on the market within two years, says Turner. Sandy Black, who studies how fashion design and technology merge at the London College of Fashion, says the idea sounds “interesting if it could be proved reliable and robust”.

Such devices are also being explored for use on aircraft, where they could link up sensors embedded in the wings without wires, or form the backbone of a passenger entertainment system.

Syndicated content: David Hambling, New Scientist

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