Today, Bluetooth is everywhere, from mobile phones, computers, speakers, lamps to wearable gadgets, like smart watches, earphones and fitness bands. Scientists, at the University of California, San Diego, have developed an entirely new wireless communication technology that, given its many advantages, seems to be a better and more sophisticated alternative to Bluetooth. The prototype, designed by the team, uses magnetic signals, sent through the human body, to wirelessly transmit data between two wearable electronic devices.
The research, recently presented at the 37th Annual International Conference of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society in Italy, discusses a new, and more efficient, wireless data transmission technique, known as “magnetic field human body communication”. Here the body acts as the central vehicle for conveying magnetic energy between a pair of electronic devices. According to the team, one way of reducing power consumption while transferring data, with the help of wearable wireless systems, is to ensure that the signals can travel freely from one part of our body to the other.
Currently-available Bluetooth gadgets use radio waves, a type of electromagnetic radiation that gets obstructed by the biological tissues, often resulting in “path loss”. When that happens, the device consumes more of its power, in order to circumvent the obstacle and allow the signals to pass through. Adding to this is the fact that most wearable contraptions, such as smart watches and fitness trackers, have tiny batteries; a feature that makes them significantly less energy-efficient. The new technology, on the other hand, uses magnetic fields, that can easily permeate through the human body, for data transmission. Speaking about the breakthrough, Patrick Mercier, a professor at UCSD’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the co-director of the university’s Center for Wearable Sensors, said:
In the future, people are going to be wearing more electronics, such as smart watches, fitness trackers and health monitors. All of these devices will need to communicate information with each other. Currently, these devices transmit information using Bluetooth radios, which use a lot of power to communicate. We’re trying to find new ways to communicate information around the human body that use much less power.
This technique ensures lower path losses, of nearly 10 million times, and consequently, much lower power consumption. For the technology to work, however, the device needs to be circular in shape, capable of being wrapped around a body part. For the research, the scientists have built a functioning prototype, containing insulated copper wires attached to an external analyzer at one end and folded in coils around a part of the body at the other. According to the team, the magnetic fields, generated by the coils, can easily travel from one side of the wearer’s body to another. Mercier added:
This technique, to our knowledge, achieves the lowest path losses out of any wireless human body communication system that’s been demonstrated so far. This technique will allow us to build much lower power wearable devices.
For those concerned about the safety issues of sending magnetic signals through their body, the scientists have pointed out that the system does not pose any kind of serious health risk. Unlike wireless implant devices and MRI machines, this ultra-low-power communication technology transmits weak magnetic fields that are completely harmless to the human body. Furthermore, it is believed to be more secure than Bluetooth networks. For instance, bluejacking and bluesnarfing are quite common especially in a radius of 20 to 30 feet. By contrast, transferring data through the human body actually makes the communication link less vulnerable to digital eavesdropping. Jiwoong Park, a Phd student at UCSD’s Jacobs School of Engineering and the study;s first author, said:
Increased privacy is desirable when you’re using your wearable devices to transmit information about your health.