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Printed, Flexible, and Organic Wearable Sensors Worth $244 Million in 10 Years

A new generation of electronic sensors could revolutionize wearable gadgets and smart retail packaging

2 min read
Printed, Flexible, and Organic Wearable Sensors Worth $244 Million in 10 Years
Photo-illustration: Maciej Frolow/Getty Images

Wearable sensors capable of checking someone's heart rate or breathing may not rely on traditional microchip technology in the near future. Instead, the next generation of printed, flexible, and organic electronic sensors could enable new medical and athletic wearable devices in a market worth an estimated $244 million within a decade, according to market analysis firm Lux Research.

The forecast comes from a new report by Lux that envisions how such printed, flexible, and organic electronic (PFOE, they call it) sensors can best fit a future where tens of billions of wirelessly-connected devices form an "Internet of Things" that include smart building thermostats, smart cars, and wearable devices. The report identifies a $400 million market for PFOE sensors by 2024 in the likeliest scenario, but other scenarios have projections ranging from $96 million to $1 billion.

Such a market includes the estimated $244 million for wearables used by athletes and medical patients—the likeliest area for new PFOE sensors to gain traction over traditional CMOS sensors. 

In both wearable cases, the sensors could monitor vital signs such as body temperature, heart rate, and respiration. Pressure sensors could even help develop proper balance in a golf swing or monitor elderly patients' walking patterns for signs of Parkinson's or multiple sclerosis.

Retail sector applications such as smart food packaging or monitoring store inventory represent the second largest opportunity for PFOE sensors, according to Lux, with an estimated market of $117 million by 2024. Printed electronics could provide a lower-cost option for flashy promotional product packaging, such as the light-up Cheerio box developed by Fulton Innovation in 2011. More critically, temperature sensors could monitor perishable foods and medical vaccines in storage. Chemical sensors might even sniff for signs of food gone bad and provide up-to-date information that beats static expiration dates.

Store managers might also be eager to take advantage of disposable, lower-cost PFOE sensors to track items on store shelves and see when they need to restock. Such item-level tracking of purchases might even enable customers to wheel a cart of goods directly to their car without stopping by the cashier. The PFOE sensors could also make large pressure sensor mats viable as a means of tracking customer shopping patterns within the store. Lux Research expects such retail sector opportunities to grow even faster than the wearable applications.

Smaller market opportunities exist for PFOE sensors in the transportation and building sectors with estimated markets worth $28 million and $11 million by 2024. Traditional CMOS sensors still have an advantage here because of their higher accuracy and reliability—traits that people generally want in their cars and buildings. But that has not stopped development of printed sensors that provide touch-based technologies for cabin control systems inside cars such as the Ford Fusion.

Overall, PFOE sensors look ready to compete against CMOS sensors based on their  larger area coverage, lower cost, lower power needs, and disposability, says Lux. Organic sensors could gain an edge over silicon or metal-based sensors as countries increasingly worry about the problem of e-waste cluttering landfills.

But Lux Research expects power consumption to play a decisive role in differentiating "winners" from "losers" among the competing sensors: It will be more decisive than sensor accuracy, precision, or size. After all, the need to frequently change or charge batteries can lead to higher labor costs for building maintenance and annoy owners of individual wearable devices. The expense of the power component in disposable applications—such as smart food packaging—will also determine the economic viability of such applications.

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Deep Learning Could Bring the Concert Experience Home

The century-old quest for truly realistic sound production is finally paying off

12 min read
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Image containing multiple aspects such as instruments and left and right open hands.
Stuart Bradford
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Now that recorded sound has become ubiquitous, we hardly think about it. From our smartphones, smart speakers, TVs, radios, disc players, and car sound systems, it’s an enduring and enjoyable presence in our lives. In 2017, a survey by the polling firm Nielsen suggested that some 90 percent of the U.S. population listens to music regularly and that, on average, they do so 32 hours per week.

Behind this free-flowing pleasure are enormous industries applying technology to the long-standing goal of reproducing sound with the greatest possible realism. From Edison’s phonograph and the horn speakers of the 1880s, successive generations of engineers in pursuit of this ideal invented and exploited countless technologies: triode vacuum tubes, dynamic loudspeakers, magnetic phonograph cartridges, solid-state amplifier circuits in scores of different topologies, electrostatic speakers, optical discs, stereo, and surround sound. And over the past five decades, digital technologies, like audio compression and streaming, have transformed the music industry.

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