The Apple Watch is the latest gadget in the wearable technology game, but it's not the first, or certainly the last, wireless communication device that will live on our bodies. Sonoma State University engineering science professor Haider Khaleel says the revenue of the wearable technology field is estimated to be $28 billion over the next five years.
"I have been amazed by these wearable electronics since they emerged about 14 years ago," says Khaleel, who specializes in wearable technology and published a textbook on the subject last year.
His expertise is in antennae for wireless devices, which hardly resemble the metal rod poking up from an old transistor radio. The majority of flexible wireless antennae are thin and translucent, about the size and thickness of a film negative, with a radiator in the middle to collect and send signal. They are in cell phones, of course, but almost all new technology has or will have antennae, from refrigerators to space shuttles. Under his guidance, Khaleel's students at Sonoma State are working on new uses for this technology.
One student project is a "smart helmet," which can power a GPS module on a helmet without the need for a battery. This could be useful in situations involving extreme sports and firefighting, but it also shows potential for the Google Lens, a contact lens that, though still in prototype phase, can transmit information about glucose levels in real time measured through tears. The antenna in this case would pull double duty as a transmitter and power source.
Another project involves converting electromagnetic waves into electrical energy. "The amount we can harvest currently is extremely small," says Khaleel. "But as technology evolves, we are trying to make devices more compact and power efficient, so there is a lot of research in ultra low-power microprocessors."
But this useful, energy-generating facet of antennae can also be dangerous. As a recent New York Times article points out, studies have shown that a energy from cellular network, like a 3G or 4G connection on a cell phone, is "possibly carcinogenic."
Khaleel doesn't disagree, but says the risk isn't as great as it may seem. "The majority of antennae in handheld devices radiate in all directions," he says, "so it can cook your brain, basically." But, of course, cell phone use wouldn't be so ubiquitous if this happened regularly--so what's the catch?
"The trick is to use ultra low-power devices," says Khaleel. The FCC regulates how much power a device may have, and other transmissions like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth use far less than a cellular network, almost eliminating the risk of harm.
Despite the dangers and fashion faux-pas (Google Glass was about as in vogue as Geordi La Forge's visor on Star Trek), wearable technology is here to stay. One example from Wired magazine, published in December 2013, sounds like it could have been written today: "A new device revolution is at hand: Just as mobile phones and tablets displaced the once-dominant PC, so wearable devices are poised to push smartphones aside."