Scientists have created a new wireless technology that could one day rival the reigning wireless communication technology, Bluetooth. The new technology requires so little power it could make devices last five times longer on a single charge.
Currently, the main wireless technologies — including Wi-Fi, 5G and Bluetooth — embedded in devices such as smartphones and wearables, as well as smart home devices, rely on classical radio configurations. These transmit data through electromagnetic waves generated by electromagnetic field modulation.
But the alternative technology instead relies on electric field modulation. Signal-transmitting devices swap out power amplifiers used in conventional wireless technologies for voltage amplifiers which generate a short-range electric field.
These voltage amplifiers also generate a weak electromagnetic field, but the receivers — untuned electrodes rather than tuned antennae — are configured to only pick up on data that travels via the electric field. (Conventional radio systems create electric fields alongside electromagnetic fields, but they decay very quickly and aren't used to transmit information.)
Power is consumed on the receiving device only when there's a charge or discharge on the receiving electrode — a process known as capacitive coupling — and not by the continuous transfer of energy through air as in classical radio configurations. As a result, the new tech, dubbed "Electric Potential Sensing Communication" (EPSComm), consumes a fraction of the power that Bluetooth uses.
"This new technology means that wearable and mobile devices will be able to operate longer on a battery charge. More fundamentally it will be possible to use smaller batteries and miniaturize devices even further, thanks to the energy savings brought about by this new communication technology. This opens up new possibilities for tiny wearable devices, such as earables (smart earbuds), smart rings, or even electronics integrated into garments," Daniel Roggen, a professor of wearable technologies at the University of Sussex, told Live Science in an email.
In experiments, Roggen's team found that optimized EPSComm consumed 10 times less power than Bluetooth, he said, which likely translates to device batteries lasting between four and five times longer between charges.
EPSComm achieved a data throughput of up to 600 kilobits per second, which Roggen said is fast enough for audio, video and virtual reality (VR) applications. While Bluetooth often has higher data transmission rates now, the first generation of Bluetooth transmitted at only 125 kbps.
The electrical signals from EPSComm travel much shorter distances than Bluetooth, which is the trade-off, but that also means a reduced chance of eavesdropping or signal interference.
Rather than completely replacing Bluetooth, however, the new tech may complement the wireless standard in future devices, Roggen said.
Somebody, for example, could connect their headphones to their smartphone using EPSComm, but if they walk away, the system would dynamically switch to a Bluetooth connection, which has a much longer range.
The team built several prototype EPSComm devices, but the transmitters and receivers were approximately 1.2 by 1.2 inches (3 by 3 centimeters). That's too large to fit into today's smartphones or wearable devices, such as running headphones.
Having established a working prototype, the researchers are looking for industrial partnerships to reduce the size of the components so they will fit into small personal devices.
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Keumars is the technology editor at Live Science. He has written for a variety of publications including ITPro, The Week Digital, ComputerActive, The Independent, The Observer, Metro and TechRadar Pro. He has worked as a technology journalist for more than five years, having previously held the role of features editor with ITPro. He is an NCTJ-qualified journalist and has a degree in biomedical sciences from Queen Mary, University of London. He's also registered as a foundational chartered manager with the Chartered Management Institute (CMI), having qualified as a Level 3 Team leader with distinction in 2023.