Opinion: batteries are an intrinsic part of the wearable device so expect to see more human-centric technology used to provide energy storage solutions

Let’s talk about batteries. There are very few of us who don’t complain about how our smartphone batteries could be better, last longer and charge faster. However, batteries for personal devices, phones and other technologies are just a very small but important part of a whole energy storage scene. 

Energy storage is more important to human life today than it has ever been. We consume vastly more energy now than ever before in our history. To feed this ever-growing energy demand, we have tapped into almost every way of fuelling our society. When the source of energy generation is from a carbon-generating, non-renewable source, that comes at a financial and environmental cost. The challenges are clear, but the benefits to our entire future are becoming clearer still. 

Batteries and energy storage devices in general play a vital role throughout society, from car batteries that evolved to electric vehicles to the Walkman which became the iPod and that smartphone again. The Lithium-ion battery started as a concept just over 40 years ago and is now the battery of choice for power hungry consumer electronics. 

The energy storage scene

If energy storage and how we power portability will be more important to human life than ever before, it raises many questions. Is it the case that we need to electrify more things to avoid fossil fuel consumption and provide cleaner air? Does everything need to be portable? How important is the storage of renewable energy generation on days where there is, for example, little wind to drive wind farms? Are we really happy with everything that is battery powered? And where does the human fit in all the technology we use? 

Advocating a reversal to the old long-lived Nokia phones with their lengthy battery life is the wrong way for sure. Amazing advances in software algorithms make data processing much more efficient and the latest microchip technologies have reduced the power needs that used to place such a demand on our batteries for the hungriest of smart devices.

Batteries play a crucial role in product design, one that is often taken for granted

Living in the 21st century has evolved to being connected in some way to most of what we consider important in our lives. Current forms of technology are powerful and useful, but they tend to be inefficient and often incompatible with natural human movement. For instance, voice-activated devices from Amazon and Google go some way to getting at information by using natural speech as its primary operation mode. 

A ball fits naturally into our palm, a large rectangular phone does not. We unknowingly adapt to use devices, accommodating their shape, location and how they work. Few of our devices offer full capability in ways that are natural to human movement or how we communicate. Even fewer still allow us to get to the information we want more efficiently. Using technology really does cut into free time and that’s after accounting for swathes of time in each day we spend addictively checking these things. How do we improve that and create more time for what matters to us?

Batteries included

Batteries play a crucial role in product design, one that is often taken for granted. Batteries are heavy, cumbersome and bulky, and tend to be a significant weight and volume of whatever they power. If you look at battery technology as it stands, there are two main designs with one common problem. Batteries can be reasonably small, like button cell watch batteries, AA, AAA and maybe the rectangular 9V ones we all shocked our tongues with. Everything they power needs to have some space to put them. 

Other batteries, in phones for example, try to reduce their size or thickness. Their svelte rectangular shape forces the device to match. All batteries are added to devices because they are separate from them. This has fundamentally limited our thought, conceptualization and product design processes for every device with a battery.

Enter the realm of human-centric technology, where technology is proposed to seamlessly integrate with our natural way of moving, sensing, processing and thinking with the information around us. This technological revolution is not just limited to wearables and involves everything redesigned to improve efficiency in how it works and what it is used for. Such technology aims to provide deeper learning and information about our bodies, health, and immediate environment. How do we do this, without adding more innovation just for technology’s sake?

The batteries are an intrinsic part of the wearable device, so the design inspires the shape of the battery, not the other way around

We have been developing prototypes and protosolutions to power future human-centric technology. The approach uses 3D printing and a range of other methods that are part of additive manufacturing. 

In a nutshell, the batteries are an intrinsic part of the wearable device, so the design inspires the shape of the battery, not the other way around. On the inside, the technology is quite similar to Li-ion rechargeable batteries, providing long life and fast recharge capability. However, the batteries can be shaped and placed physically anywhere, and this opens up so many new design possibilities for wearables. 

Batteries and wearables

Batteries that conform to wearables, consumer electronics or the human form may be one of the most important developments in making future technology for enhanced quality of life. Printable and flexible energy generators from heat, solar cells and movement transducers can continually charge these batteries. The technology can be adapted to applications in workspaces, outdoors, on-person or essentially anywhere.

In reality, the battery in the design of future technology will be as intrinsic and natural to the device as the device will be to a person. The information from smartwatches does not have to come from a watch. There are better places on our body to measure heart rate, body temperature, and measure speed or stress. By merging how we think about battery manufacture and product design at the same time, we can focus on the true human-centric nature of a device that give powerful insight and knowledge, beyond measurements and data. Wherever it is worn and how it is used, the power source is automatically inbuilt in the material the device is made from – in any shape.

Future technology design needs to avoid new, shiny tech and short-lived infatuations

There is a new technological future around the corner, it’s more immediate than we think and it is poised to really change so much in our connected lives than can be appreciated right now. Imagine healthcare diagnostics that lead to prediction, made possible by unobtrusive, natural body-fitting wearables that gather life-long data from millions of people to create a database of all that affects health. Advertising becomes native and retail trends are based on emotions, feelings and reactions rather than direct contact. 

Safety and privacy are always a concern with wearables, but location tracking, mood sensing and personal information can be protected with the right software and hardware. The rewards might outweigh the risks and we will know that in time. There is too much potential improvement in productivity, efficiency, connectivity, health and wellness and beyond to ignore the transformative effects that new human-centric technology could bring. 

Plugging out

We do not know what the future will look like, but how we power and design wearables to enhance our lives and liberate time lost in interacting with that technology is a gateway. Being sensitive to work-life balance, avoiding "phone-zombies" on the street and "blue faces" at dinner tables, the need to face-to-face conversations and real social interaction are all at the core of human-centric technological evolution. Benefits will no doubt promote healthier living, mobility for work, the ease of communicating naturally to friends and family, entertainment and so much more. 

Dealing with these issues in wearables will come down to some degree to design. This will dictate how likely we are to wear or use a technology for long periods of time as a life-tool. Future technology design needs to avoid new, shiny tech and short-lived infatuations.  

Batteries have come a long way, and are an excellent technology, but their implementation been very similar over the decades, namely batteries sold separately! Rethinking this and disrupting incrementalism can power the next innovation, one where batteries will always be included.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ