As we increasingly rely on technology, one can hardly recall a life without these modern luxuries and conveniences. Our growing appetite for better and faster technology does not always keep pace with what can be done. This reliance on modern technology has enabled innovation in the wearables market. Imagine being able to charge your mobile devices anywhere you happen to be, as solar is the key to many of these developing technologies.
There has been a trend to incorporate the technology that we use every day into our clothing and wearables. Utilizing solar to power these technologies has been in development for some time, but has only recently begun to hit the mainstream masses. The concept of solar powering clothing and wearables is practical and convenient. It may take a few years to really see this movement take off.
Solar as Tactical Gear
Development of wearable tech had originally started as an innovation for U.S. troops. When the troops are out in the field, there is no access to power should any of their equipment run out of juice. Typically, they would have to carry additional batteries with them as backup. Many even carry backup for the backup as extra caution. Solar is free and a renewable energy source, which can be accessed anywhere in the world. Oftentimes, our troops are in remote locations or places where modern technology is not the norm. Being able to have solar powered equipment with them will also save our troops from having to carry extra bulk like additional batteries. Their gear is heavy enough already with all the equipment, such as night vision googles, that they have to carry with them on missions. There is also future development in creating uniforms for soldiers with solar fibers woven into the fabric so that they can charge while on the run, also eliminating any additional bulk and charging concerns.
Solar as Fashion
Fashion designers such as Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger have gotten in on the action by creating backpacks and jackets that integrate solar panels. Lesser known designers have also branched out and created solar swimsuits and sunglasses. Since these two items are typically worn in sunlight, it would make sense to take advantage of the free and bountiful powers of the sun. Although some might not view these wearables as high fashion, solar wearables are practical and useful.
Many of these solar wearables were designed in mind to charge your mobile devices. There are already many portable charging devices out on the market. However, there is added bulk and inconvenience when carrying these with you. Besides the charging unit itself, you must also remember to carry the unit’s charging cord and a USB cable to connect it to your mobile device. A solar wearable that can charge your mobile devices while you are out and about doing your everyday tasks is a major convenience and eliminates any fear of having a dead phone.
Samsung, known for being a technology maker, has delved into the wearables market by developing clothing and accessories that integrates solar technology. The smart clothing is fashionable and functional. The exercise clothing can track body movement. The suit is equipped with NFC (near field communication) tags, which allow digital information to be snagged with your smartphone. Samsung also created a solar purse named the Sol Bag, which charges a phone in four hours. It is modeled after a clutch. The solar panels are placed on the front of the bag in a decorative pattern. However, it cannot store sun power, so the charging only occurs in the light. This may not be ideal for emergency situations, where a quick charge is needed. However, if you were out sunbathing at the beach, the hours you spend outside would be all the sun necessary to charge your phone.
Solar powered sunglasses are an innovation by two Korean designers, Hyun-Joong Kim and Kwang-Seok Jeong. These Self-Energy Converting Sunglasses feature dye solar cells that collect the sun’s energy and convert it into electricity to charge your mobile devices through a power jack located on the frames. This is an ingenious product because sunglasses are something that you would wear out in the sun, and rather than deflecting those rays, these sunglasses draws in the sun’s energy and converts it into useful energy.
The barrier to market for all these designers who want to enter into the wearables arena is that the clothes are not easily washable. Most of these garments will have to be laundered by hand. This is an unattractive and inconvenient aspect that may deter people from purchasing these products. In our modern times, household chores are done mostly with machines.
Solar as Health Movement
Fitness trackers are one of the most common forms of wearable technology. Typically, they are powered with a small watch battery with a life span of 6 months. There have been strides to make them self-powered. Companies have put a focus on creating aesthetically pleasing designs on fitness trackers, providing both beauty and function. A company called Misfit has partnered with Swarovski to create Swarovski Shine, which is an activity tracker that incorporates solar technology through the use of crystals and tiny solar cells. A violet crystal bends light onto the solar cell to power the tracker. The new technology has catapulted Shine to popularity in the fitness tracker market after established brands like Fitbit and Jawbone.
A Tough Sell
Though solar wearables sound cool and seem practical, getting people to actually wear them is another story. The solar wearables have to be worn in direct sunlight to attract the most energy to generate enough power to charge a mobile device. Also, the amount of time spent in sunlight must be factored in. Added bulk is another major concern. No one wants to carry additional weight just to power their mobile devices. The fashion aspect may also repel people as solar has mostly been ornamental on clothing and functions more as wearable art than actual clothing. The payoff might not be large enough to entice people to give wearables a go.
Another significant con for solar wearables is the washability factor. Clothes get dirty and need to be washed or dry cleaned. The solar cells need to be encapsulated in order to be cleaned properly, without ill-effects to the technology. Currently, this process is being developed. Also, some scientists are experimenting with embedding the solar technology directly into the clothing fibers.
Solar clothing and wearables might be seen as a fad and people may not jump on the bandwagon until it is accepted into the mainstream. With any new technology, there are always early and late adopters.
A Glimpse into the Future
Back in the day, we could only dream of futuristic technology or imagine it through the magic of cinematography. Dick Tracy using his watch as a phone has become a reality with the iWatch. Time will be the real indicator of when technology will catch up to our imagination. There are currently many new technologies in the works to be developed for use with wearables.
Solar panels have primarily been ornamental on clothing. However, there is new technology in development to weave the solar cells into the fabric itself, essentially creating solar yarn that could then be used to make clothing. This will also address the washability concerns. A group at Pennsylvania State University has furthered development into solar fibers. Their idea is to embed solar cells into flexible wires to be woven into fabric.
Flexible Solar Cells
Flexible solar cells have been created by a team of scientists at M.I.T. that will allow it to power wearables. They were actually able to grow it in the lab. It is flexible and light, so light in fact that they were able to lay it atop a soap bubble. Imagine never having to actively charge your mobile devices again. This new technology will enable your wearable to effortlessly charge your devices with freedom from bulk.
An achievement of a flexible solar battery has been attained through a collaborative between scientists from Northwestern University, the University of Illinois, China and South Korea. Encased in a silicone shell, the components of microscopic lithium-ion batteries and stretchable circuits enable flexible movement without compromising power generation. Sustainability is achieved because this battery allows for storage. The flexibility of this battery allows for it to be integrated into various devices.
It is clear that with all these different innovations from different parts of the World, solar wearables are perceived as the next big thing. It is a niche market now, but with continued progress in technology, solar wearables have the potential to explode.