Now That WiFi Is Done, It’s Time For WiBo (Wireless Body Networking)

How do you network five or ten different wearable devices? The answer is to define a new wireless networking technology specially aimed at wearables, and that's a clear opportunity for someone...

Technology companies are falling over themselves to get a foothold in the wearable technology space. We are all familiar with product concepts such as smart watches, smart glasses, fitness trackers and even apparel products that glow in the dark. Most of us are also aware of other wearable product categories, like smart ear buds, contact lenses that can be used to monitor glucose levels and maybe technologies that recognise gestures or even thoughts.

But relatively few are aware of what is going on below the surface of the wearable tech market: scientists and engineers working in academia and corporate R&D labs are pioneering some quite remarkable technologies that will turn science fiction into reality a lot sooner than you might think.

Here are a few examples that suggest what's to come:

  • Ingestible pills that take their power from the heat of the human body in order to make very precise measurements of local body chemistry, which are then wirelessly reported back to a network level health monitoring service.
  • Patches that convert body heat into enough electrical energy that can power small electronic devices.
  • Contact lenses that contain an electro-optic film which can be used to project images on the wearer's field of view and also record (when used in reverse) what the wearer is seeing.
  • Thin films that can be deposited on a personal device, perhaps a wristband or smartphone, that can detect the presence of pathogens in the user's breath or the surrounding environment.

It is clear that a very broad range of products, sensors and technologies will come onto the wearables market in the coming years. All of these products are destined to be used in one place: on (or even inside) the wearer's body.

This raises an important question which is, how are all these devices going to be networked together at the physical layer?

Clearly in order for their full potential to be realised, these devices need to be connected to each other and also to network-level services and thereby, other devices and other people.

So how is this level of connectivity going to be provided?

To take an example, Apple and Google have made different choices about which part of the body to target first: Apple has chosen the wrist (e.g. Apple Watch) while Google has chosen the eyes (e.g. Google Glass).

But this does not mean that both companies will never consider other parts of the body: Google already has a smart watch programme and I’d be utterly amazed if Apple does not already have very well-advanced projects focused on smart glasses.

It is easy to see why both players are looking beyond their initial beach heads: it is clear that the user interface offered by the Apple Watch is good at some things and less good at others. So while the Apple Watch makes it easy to scan headlines it is not feasible to look at any detailed content – a future version of Google Glass would seem more suitable for viewing long-form content.

We can see a similar problem with Google Glass: while it is easy to take a picture, it is not easy to send that picture to a friend with a covering message: again the user really wants a richer user interface that would allow him or her to use touch, for instance.

Hence, surely a hybrid user interface would be more effective?

This is easier to see when we start including other types of wearable products such as wireless ear buds: perhaps the 'optimum' wearable tech user interface would be a hybrid between hand, eye and ear?

This suggests that all of these devices, and others, would need to be connected together wirelessly. But assuming that they could all be wirelessly interconnected then which device would act as a central controller?

Given that the smart glasses concept is likely - in the future - to be collapsed into a pair of contact lenses, then this device is ruled out.

The small size of a wireless ear bud would make it unfeasible to integrate the high-power (e.g. 2 Watts) RF transmitter that would be needed to effect a mobile data connection to the internet. So this device is also ruled out.

The wrist is a more likely candidate for a central controller but even this is a stretch: smart watches today barely last one day before they have to be recharged and that is without an integrated RF transmitter. If the smart watch were to become the central controller then the requirements of the battery would be completely unfeasible. Also the device would get uncomfortably hot and potentially dangerous to the wearer if it was being used to make a long call or handle media processing for example.

All of this suggests that none of the current wearable products would be obviously suitable to perform the function of the central controller.

Hence, I think that the smartphone is the best device for this role as shown below:

In this conceptualised diagram an arbitrary number of wearable products are connected to a central body-mounted 'controller' which then effects the network connection. The controller would start out as a smartphone (all smart glasses and watches today require a tethered smartphone). But in the future, as more of the I/O functions that are part of today's smatphones are distributed to other wearable devices, then the smartphone's role becomes less an I/O and display device and more a simple controller which the wearer has to carry with them at all times - like a wallet or purse.

Considering the small physical size of some of these future wearable devices and sensors, they would have to be networked together using a frequency that was well above current Wi-Fi or cellular networks: perhaps 10 - 20 GHz (Wi-Fi is about 2.4 / 5.0 GHz). Also, the very specific use cases that would be supported would likely require a re-think of the associated wireless protocols.

It seems that what is needed is a completely new wireless networking standard. Wi-Fi is a short-range wireless networking standard that is used to connect devices in home and office locations. ‘Wi-Bo’ (Wireless Body) would be a micro-range wireless networking standard used to interconnect devices that are mounted on the body.

In the case that the user was at home, for example, then their Wi-Bo network would be used to connect all of their wearable devices together while the Wi-Fi network would be used to effect another wireless connection between the user’s Wi-Bo controller and their local router, with their fixed broadband connection being used to effect connection to the internet.

It is likely that a number of entrepreneurs are pitching this very idea to tech VCs right now or if not, then they soon will be. It seems clear that any start-up which was successful in developing a technological approach that could be used to effect 'wireless networking for wearable devices' would be interesting to Google, Apple, Microsoft or Samsung, plus others.