For future wearables, the network could be you

Researchers have built a network that uses magnetic fields for devices to communicate through the body

People who wear networked gadgets all over their bodies may someday become networks themselves.

Researchers at the University of California, San Diego, have found a way for wearables to communicate through a person's body instead of the air around it. Their work could lead to devices that last longer on smaller batteries and don't give away secrets as easily as today's systems do.

The proliferation of smartphones, smart watches, health monitoring devices and other gear carried close to the body has led to so-called personal area networks that link the gadgets together and provide a path to the Internet through one that has a Wi-Fi or cell radio. Today, those PANs use short-range over-the-air systems like Bluetooth.

But radio technologies like Bluetooth can't transmit well through the body itself, so they have to go around it. Bluetooth signals can travel as far as 10 meters (30 feet) which increases the chance of eavesdropping and leads to high "path loss," an effect that weakens signals on the way to their destinations, the researchers said.

A team led by Professor Patrick Mercier of the university's Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering has discovered a way to use the body itself as the medium for data transmission. It uses magnetic fields and shows path loss that's 10 million times lower than what happens with Bluetooth.

This could make the magnetic networks much more efficient, so devices don't have to work as hard to communicate and can have smaller batteries -- or get longer useful lives with the same size batteries. The team hasn't actually tested the system's energy use yet. They envision the technology being used for networks of health sensors that monitor many parts of the body.

Wireless technologies like Bluetooth radiate electrical and magnetic waves, which a human body tends to absorb, Mercier said. By contrast, his team's network transmits data over magnetic fields that are created between two coils. Those fields can easily travel through the body. The system works like NFC (near-field communications), but at a slightly longer range. It uses very low frequencies, in the range of 10MHz to 30MHz, and it can carry at least 1M bps (bit per second), enough for dedicated devices like sensors, he said.

There's just one catch: Anything that goes on the network needs to be circular and wrap around a part of the body. So smartwatches or fitness bands could work, but a sensor attached to the user's chest would need to be attached to a band around the chest.

The team built a prototype network and installed it on the body of Jiwoong Park, a Ph.D student in Mercier's lab, as a proof of concept. It used coils of insulated copper wire wrapped around each of his arms. The coils sent magnetic signals from one arm to another using his body as a guide.

There's no serious danger to the wearer's health because the magnetic fields are so weak, the researchers said. They're far weaker than those used by a device like an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) machine or even the effect of the Earth's magnetic field on the body, Mercier said.

Though some signals may radiate out from the wearer's body, they dissipate quickly so there's not much chance of interception from nearby, Mercier said. Still, any medical data that sensors sent over the network would have to be encrypted, he added. Signals would probably flow into the body of someone that the wearer touched, but the researchers haven't tested that yet.

Join the Good Gear Guide newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags wearable devicesbluetoothUniversity of Californiamagnetic-field networkWearables

Our Back to Business guide highlights the best products for you to boost your productivity at home, on the road, at the office, or in the classroom.

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Stephen Lawson

IDG News Service
Show Comments

Essentials

Microsoft L5V-00027 Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard Desktop

Learn more >

Lexar® JumpDrive® S57 USB 3.0 flash drive

Learn more >

Mobile

Lexar® JumpDrive® S45 USB 3.0 flash drive 

Learn more >

Exec

Lexar® JumpDrive® C20c USB Type-C flash drive 

Learn more >

HD Pan/Tilt Wi-Fi Camera with Night Vision NC450

Learn more >

Lexar® Professional 1800x microSDHC™/microSDXC™ UHS-II cards 

Learn more >

Audio-Technica ATH-ANC70 Noise Cancelling Headphones

Learn more >

Budget

Back To Business Guide

Click for more ›

Most Popular Reviews

Latest News Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Azadeh Williams

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

A smarter way to print for busy small business owners, combining speedy printing with scanning and copying, making it easier to produce high quality documents and images at a touch of a button.

Andrew Grant

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

I've had a multifunction printer in the office going on 10 years now. It was a neat bit of kit back in the day -- print, copy, scan, fax -- when printing over WiFi felt a bit like magic. It’s seen better days though and an upgrade’s well overdue. This HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 looks like it ticks all the same boxes: print, copy, scan, and fax. (Really? Does anyone fax anything any more? I guess it's good to know the facility’s there, just in case.) Printing over WiFi is more-or- less standard these days.

Ed Dawson

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

As a freelance writer who is always on the go, I like my technology to be both efficient and effective so I can do my job well. The HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 Inkjet Printer ticks all the boxes in terms of form factor, performance and user interface.

Michael Hargreaves

Windows 10 for Business / Dell XPS 13

I’d happily recommend this touchscreen laptop and Windows 10 as a great way to get serious work done at a desk or on the road.

Aysha Strobbe

Windows 10 / HP Spectre x360

Ultimately, I think the Windows 10 environment is excellent for me as it caters for so many different uses. The inclusion of the Xbox app is also great for when you need some downtime too!

Mark Escubio

Windows 10 / Lenovo Yoga 910

For me, the Xbox Play Anywhere is a great new feature as it allows you to play your current Xbox games with higher resolutions and better graphics without forking out extra cash for another copy. Although available titles are still scarce, but I’m sure it will grow in time.

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?