Everyone knows that the body is used to communicate way more information than we do by speech, almost unconsciously, but researchers at the University of California, San Diego, are aiming to take that to a whole new level.

They are in the early stages of developing technology that will use your body as the communication medium, which they say will, with some refinement, work as a lower-power and much more secure alternative to Bluetooth for wearable gadgets, such as smart watches or health trackers.

And it uses magnets. Sort-of.
Image via slashgear

Patrick Mercier, assistant professor at UCSD and co-director of the Center for Wearable Sensors belonging to the University, says that while the Bluetooth radios embedded in many gadgets are useful for transmitting data over short distances, they’re not that great at it when there’s a body in the way. Our flesh and blood tends to absorb the radio signals Bluetooth technology relies on to move data from one device to another—which means more power has to be expended to communicate via Bluetooth to make up for it.

What are bodies aren’t as good at absorbing though, are magnetic fields. Mercier and graduate student Jiwoong Park have thus set their eyes on them to help them create new technology that would make communication more efficient by sending such signals through, well…us.

Mercier and Park experimented by wrapping insulated coils of copper wire around a person’s head, legs, and arms. An electrical current was used to generate magnetic fields with the coils, and they measured how the magnetic waves were picked up by the other coils via the body.

The coils are “trying to use the arm as a guide, of sorts, to guide the magnetic wave across to the other side of the body,” Mercier says.

They then measured how much of the signal was lost from one body part to the next (arm to head or arm to arm, for example) – it was a staggering 10 million times less that what they’d measure for Bluetooth. This leads them to think it could be used to make wearable gadgets that use way less power for communication.

Mercier also believes the technology will be more secure than Bluetooth, since tapping into a wireless network is much more inconspicuous than tapping into a person’s buttocks. To those worried about any adverse health effects the signal might have, Mercier says that the field being generated is harmless. “orders of magnitude” lower than an MRI.

The technology is still just in the early prototype phase; Mercier says that while they have some “preliminary” prototypes that they’ve used to transfer brain activity data from a coil around the head to a coil around the wrist, and from there to a connected computer, it isn’t integrated into a wearable gadget yet. He adds that they’re also planning to do some experiments through which they’ll transfer something like the data from a heart-rate monitor across this sort of link to a smartwatch.

However, Mercier suspects the technology won’t be as useful for gadgets that don’t wrap around the body—like smartphones or a sensor-containing patch you might stick on your body—because they won’t propagate the magnetic waves through the body in the same way.

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