Beyond Batteries

New technology is laying the goundwork for a revolution in wireless wearables
Close-up of a hand holding a microchip

Smartwatches were big breakthroughs when they hit the market in the early 2000s. Even nascent versions got consumers excited with their ability to play games and access newsfeeds. Two decades later, that Fitbit or Apple Watch on your wrist can actually collect, store, and transmit data. Wearable devices like these have amazing capacity within their tiny computers. But they have capacity limits, too. The culprit? The very thing that powers them—batteries.

Enter UMass Amherst researchers Sunghoon (Ivan) Lee, assistant professor of computer science, and Yeonsik Noh, assistant professor of nursing and electrical and computer engineering. Inspired by research on stroke survivors that relied on bulky, battery-powered sensors, Lee’s vision is to invent devices that not only operate without batteries but take the concept of battery-less wearables one step further. In his mind’s eye, the next generation of wearables will transfer power between wireless sensors using a far more efficient conductor—human skin.

“There’s been a lot of work with wireless power transfer,” said Lee, “but we’re the first to look at utilizing a person’s skin. We’re the first out with this type of research.”

Lee and Noh’s work is groundbreaking not just for its technological implications, but for the possibilities it opens up for personalized health monitoring. Their interdisciplinary approach is key to developing wearables that consider human factors in technology development.

From left: Assistant Professor Sunghoon Ivan Lee,

Master's candidate Bhushan Parab and

Senior Research Fellow Jeremy Gummeson.

Collaborating with fellow computer scientists Rui Wang and Jeremy Gummeson ’06, ’11MS, ’14PhD, the researchers conduct their work at the UMass Amherst Institute for Applied Life Sciences (IALS) Center for Personalized Health Monitoring (CPHM). The project revolves around a novel concept of wirelessly transferring current through human skin to power battery-less wearable sensors. The self-powered sensors can be ultra-miniaturized and ergonomically designed for placement on small areas of the body, like a finger, an ear or even a tooth.

“We’re working on a process that shrinks the size of devices so they can be placed on small parts of the body,” Lee said. “And because you don’t have to change batteries, there’s a variety of ways in which wearable sensors can be improved and expanded.”

It’s a technological innovation unreachable with conventional in-device batteries. Which is why Lee and Noh believe their research can lay the groundwork to transform existing architectures and spawn a new generation of on-body sensors.

It’s the framework, in other words, for all sorts of applications—and one with the potential to revolutionize personalized health monitoring. The campus recently recognized that potential, awarding Lee and Noh a $40,000 grant supported by the Armstrong Fund for Science to advance the development of their research. Benefactors John and Elizabeth Armstrong established their Fund for Science in 2006 to identify and support promising research directions that do not yet have enough data available for the principals to apply to standard funding channels.

In making the award, Michael F. Malone, vice chancellor for research and engagement, told Lee and Noh, “The selection committee viewed it very positively that you are bringing together an interdisciplinary team with significant expertise in wearable computing research to overcome a significant barrier to developing a new class of battery-less wearable devices.”

Over the next two years, the team will continue their inquiry process, asking and seeking answers to questions like whether one transmitter can support multiple sensors—and, if so, what are the constraints. So far, they’ve relied on Bluetooth to collect and transfer data. In the future, they hope to do it directly through the skin.

Lee and Noh’s project is one of many in the Center for Personalized Health Monitoring with potential to change the way health monitoring is done. The revolution in battery-less wearables for personalized health monitoring is happening, and UMass Amherst is leading the charge. Watch this space.

Institute for Applied Life Sciences: umass.edu/IALS

Center for Personalized Health Monitoring: umass.edu/cphm

Photos: Zinj Guo

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