The Future of Wearables Is Washable

Rinse, dry, power up

Key Takeaways

  • A new kind of flexible and washable battery could power future generations of wearable gadgets. 
  • The battery has several ultra-thin layers of plastic to create an airtight, waterproof seal.
  • Augmented reality glasses have the potential to be the most exciting wearable technology, one expert said.
Someone dressed in workout clothes looking at a wearable device on their wrist.

Colin Anderson Productions pty ltd / Getty Images

You might be able to throw your next wearable in the laundry along with your clothes. 

Researchers have created what could be the first battery that is both flexible and washable. It's part of a growing number of innovations in gadgets you wear, including smartwatches and glasses. 

"Overall, battery technology is the most basic of technology hurdles to overcome for smart glasses," Trevor Doerksen, the CEO of wearable app developer ePlay Digital, told Lifewire in an email interview. "Apple has trained its users to charge the Watch battery every day, and this will help when releasing a product that goes around a user's eyes."

Stretchy Tech

Wearable electronics are a growing market, but experts say current limitations on battery technology are holding back their development. 

"Up until now, stretchable batteries have not been washable," Ngoc Tan Nguyen, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia who worked on the new batteries, said in a news release. "This is a critical addition if they are to withstand the demands of everyday use."

The battery developed by Nguyen and his colleagues offers several engineering advances. The internal layers are hard materials encased in a rigid exterior in standard batteries. The UBC team made the essential compounds—in this case, zinc and manganese dioxide—stretchable by grinding them into small pieces and then embedding them in rubbery plastic or polymer. 

The battery has several ultra-thin layers of plastic to create an airtight, waterproof seal. So far, the battery has withstood 39 wash cycles, and the team expects to improve its durability further as they continue to develop the technology.

Work is underway to increase the battery's power output and cycle life, but already the innovation has attracted commercial interest. The researchers believe that when the new battery is ready for consumers, it could cost the same as an ordinary rechargeable battery.

Future Wearables

Advances in batteries and materials could drive a revolution in wearables. Wearables of the near future will be a combination of doctor-on-wrist and personal trainer-on-wrist, Scott Hanson, the founder of Ambiq, which manufactures components for wearables, told Lifewire in an email interview. These devices will poll a slew of sensors to judge heart health, sleep patterns, food intake, and daily movement patterns. 

"Overall, battery technology is the most basic of technology hurdles to overcome..."

"They will analyze that data both locally and in the cloud and then provide feedback to the user on their health," Hanson said. "They will identify sickness before it becomes serious."

Future wearables could also have defense applications. A new, wearable device—nicknamed the "Superman" project—can monitor military personnel as they engage in dangerous environments. From soldiers in combat to mechanics in confined spaces, this addition to the uniform can detect several variables such as body temperature and movement speed and allow direct communications with team members. 

Tech journalist David Pring-Mill told Lifewire in an email interview that the smart ring will become a more popular form factor in the years to come, owing to its design potential and possibly more accurate pulse readings. 

"In my research, I've found that awareness of this form factor is still somewhat lacking, but it tends to pique interest when mentioned or described," he said. 

Augmented reality glasses have the potential to be the most exciting wearable technology, Doerksen said. Unlike phones and watches, the screens on AR glasses will mix the real world and the virtual world. 

Someone interacting with a wearable device on their wrist.

Maciej Frolow / Getty Images

"Imagine having fitness stats, fitness form animations, gamification, personal best data, visual and audio cues, notifications, messaging, and neighborhood information in a heads-up display augmenting our real-world through sunglasses, headphones, and a watch," he said. 

But as wearables grow in capabilities, so too do the concerns for privacy and misuse of personal data, pointed out Fadel Megahed, a professor at Miami University who researches wearables, in an email interview with Lifewire. 

"Without a doubt, there have been some excellent examples of the literal life-changing potential of wearables," he said. "However, the privacy risks remain an important part of the calculus for adoption."

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