10 September, 2012 - 19:11 By News Desk

Roll on flexible electronics

We are not very good at keeping things simple. Computers get ever more complex and power hungry, but it doesn't need to be that way.

It's always good to compare today with yesterday. Thirty years ago, the VAX 750 was typical of computers used to provide perfectly adequate office automation to entire departments of big companies.

Each one easily served 30 or 40 people. It only ran at 0.5MIPS if my memory serves me well, good by standards at the time.

By comparison the new Kindle Fire runs at 6.2GIPS, and those are 64bit instructions, not 16 (actually, I'm not sure the VAX even used 16). So the Kindle does 12,000 times as many calculations per second as the VAX, on far bigger numbers.

We use it to read books or browse the net, but a Kindle Fire could run office automation for half a million people.

We don’t need a lot of the functions that we have in today’s software very often, nor most of the operating system features. Most of the time, we only use our computers for simple data entry, reading, communicating or simple graphics. We load all of the other stuff just in case it is needed.

If we use a simple approach and provide only what we need, when we need it, it could be made cheaper, ubiquitous, more reliable and more secure. 'Just in time' rather than 'just in case'. Ultra-simple software could also be made relatively bug free, because simpler programs would be easier to check.

If we use simple techniques and compact software, fewer processing and storage elements are needed. If sensing can be integrated with processing and storage, and if devices can use passive physics instead of active digital algorithms wherever possible, then much can be done with lightweight approaches.

Roll on flexible electronics. This has been a very active field in the last year, with many important development steps that extend the scope, performance, cost and medical compatibility of circuits. Many are aimed at being worn on the skin or even as implants in the eyes or on brain surface.

Simple processing makes a perfect partner for flexible electronics, reducing energy needs, which helps keep operating temperature acceptable, and also the visual obtrusiveness. A thin membrane is easier to tolerate on the skin than a thick one. If we marry an ultra-simple approach to flexible electronics, we get something we can stick on our forearm that can do lots of things without burning us or needing to be recharged every five minutes.

It is hard to see new ideas in flexible electronics because it seems like every variant of wearable electronics has been imagined already - functional or decorative. Health monitors and touch sensitive tablet substitutes are the most obvious, followed by video tattoos and active makeup.

Smart membranes for personalised drug delivery can also be done. Flexilectronics also enables a range of security tools and identifiers, socialisation devices, and even networking tools that can be used to create secret nets, to bypass snooping Big Brothers. There are also lots of lesser possibilities for things like wearable emoticons that relay your emotional state if you cant be bothered to use your facial muscles to actually smile.

As it becomes more flexible, we'll start seeing a wide range of different kinds of devices. A tablet computer is still far too thick and heavy, but new ones will soon appear that are paper thin and flexible, with plastic coatings that make them waterproof.

Many paper products such as greeting cards, gift vouchers and product labels will go electronic, but only if the power comes down and simplicity goes up, to make them cheap and cheerful. And that is really the key. We don't always need a computer that can look after half million people. Sometimes one is enough.

@timeguide www.futurizon.com

Newsletter Subscription

Stay informed of the latest news and features