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Coming soon: Wearable tech that uses your body to transmit the signal

UC San Diego wireless magnetic conceptUC San Diego wireless magnetic concept
A prototype of the magnetic field human body communication developed at the University of California, San Diego.Courtesy Jacobs School of Engineering, UC San Diego

First there were mobile devices such as your smartphone—rechargeable computers made for the pocket or purse.

Then there came wearables such as smart watches, glasses, or apparel—sensor-laden devices worn on the body itself, but still separate from it.

Now, a team of researchers at the University of California, San Diego led by professor Patrick Mercier have developed a new wireless communication technique that involves sending magnetic signals through the human body. The next stop: Technology that uses you, the user, to function.

Most of today’s wireless, Internet-connected devices directly communicate with each other using Bluetooth, the almost two-decade-old standard. The problem? Bluetooth radios require lots of energy, which small, “smart” devices have in extremely limited supply. (Crack one open and you’ll find that most modern “smart” devices are largely batteries, not computer chips.) Add into the mix the human body, which typically blocks radio signals and thus requires extra power to overcome, and you’ve got a serious limit to innovation.

The answer, according to electrical engineers at UC San Diego? An ultra-low-power wireless system that uses the body itself as a vehicle to deliver energy between gadgets. The researchers call it, appropriately, “magnetic field human body communication.” Because magnetic fields are able to pass freely through biological tissue, signals lose less power and therefore—with hope—incur a far smaller energy penalty. (The researchers say there aren’t serious health risks because the signal is ultra-low power, far less disruptive than, say, an MRI.)

For now, the technique is a proof of concept, so don’t get too excited. (In experiments, researchers demonstrated that magnetic communication functioned well with the body. They didn’t test power consumption.) Still, researchers estimate that magnetic field communication through the human body is 10 million times—yes, you read that correctly—more effective than that of Bluetooth radios.

In the world of wearable technology—estimated in 2012 to be worth some $200 billion globally—a little improvement can go a long way.

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