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Credit: Northwestern University
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This post first appeared on David Stern’s Inside Activity Tracking Blog

Whatever benchmark wearables market size number you believe, whether we’ll see 14 million or 200 million units shipped by 2016, one thing is clear: Unless we quickly see major innovation in battery technology, most of these units will get about as much use as the much-heralded home breadmaking machines.

To succeed, wearables must enhance and simplify daily life, not complicate it. In the words of Hosain Rahman, the CEO of Jawbone, “all this wearable stuff is constrained by battery technology. It’s not a computing problem.” Rahman was speaking at the Reuters Global Technology Summit, discussing the current limitations to the wearable device movement. Consider that some reviewers are only getting 5 hours of battery life when using Google Glass under normal conditions: not nearly enough for a full day away from a charger.

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Short-term solutions to battery limitations such as PWRGlass, an extended battery pack attachment for Google Glass, and Vodafone’s Power Pocket, which harnesses kinetic energy from walking to charge mobile devices, won’t revolutionize wearable devices. They may, however, make a lot of money for their companies given the acuteness of the problem and the consumer demand for devices. Innovations and improvements must be made at the battery and wearable device level. Gadgets that only address the symptoms of under-developed power sources will not disrupt this market, although like Mophie they will have a good run.

We see major upcoming improvements in three categories: wearable-optimized battery design, improved mobile recharging, and more efficient power usage.

Battery Design

No clear leader has yet emerged in the race to build batteries for wearable devices. Many manufacturers, however, are developing products specifically for them. One such example is Imprint Energy, which is developing zinc- instead of lithium-based batteries. The zinc base is much more stable and safer than the traditional lithium construction. As a result, Imprint’s batteries require much less packaging. This allows Imprint to screen-print batteries — similar to the method used to print designs on T-shirts — that are ultra-thin yet effective and safe. The screen-printing method also means Imprint can create batteries in completely customizable shapes to match any device.

For many devices, such as stretchable wrist- or headbands, batteries that can be folded and stretched are also necessary. In response to this need, Northwestern University and the University of Illinois created a stretchable battery that is fully capable of operating when stretched to 3 times its normal size. We suspect these stretchable, bendable batteries will appear in the next generation of fitness wearables. Considering that the only non-pliable part of the Nike FuelBand is its battery, this development brings us closer to a new wave of better-fitting, more comfortable wearable devices.

Not to be outdone by Northwestern, researchers at Harvard has also just developed a 3-D printed battery in conjunction with the University of Illinois that is smaller than a grain of rice yet potent enough to power ingestible activity trackers similar to those made by Proteus Digital Health. With the same power density as existing lithium-ion batteries and a highly adaptable design that comes from the 3-D printing process, this development is especially promising for ingestible or implantable biosensors.

Improved Charging

While all of these developments in battery design are exciting, many industry leaders believe the stickiness of wearable technology hinges on its ability to break from its reliance on batteries. For example, at the Reuters Global Technology Summit, Soulaiman Itani — the CEO of Atheer Labs — said “remote charging … will cause a huge next leap [for wearable devices] because it breaks this dependence on the battery.”

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