A surprising friendship: VR, Technology and Sweat

Hands up if you love to get a bit of a sweat on? Maybe for you, it’s hitting the weights, running through the woods or sitting in a sauna. Or perhaps you prefer shaking it all out in the manner of Jane Fonda, or running your mates off a rugby pitch! Whatever it is for you, we’ve become aware of an interesting new development in relation to our sweat and we thought we’d share the findings with you.

Sweat is powerful

Whilst we’re most aware of sweat when our bodies are undergoing a physical activity, or a biological process such as menopause, we actually sweat more than we think we do. Sweating is generally experienced in the parts of the body that are less well ventilated- all the places you’d usually think of – armpits,  lower back and so on. But we also sweat through our fingertips. As the fingertips are pretty much permanently exposed to the air, any sweat that is produced here evaporates quickly and consequently we are less aware of it. 

Engineers at the University of California in San Diego realised that rather than letting that sweat evaporate, they could harness it as a form of action potential. They then went on to create a small, fingertip sized wearable device that generates power in response to sweat or touch. This opens up brand new opportunities for smaller electronics, and just possibly, for VR. 

So this thing we’re talking about is a thin flexible device- that doesn’t look hugely different from a SIM or memory card and is worn around the user’s fingertip. Small amounts of sweat are collected through an absorbent padding made of carbon foam electrodes. The specialist enzymes in the electrodes activate a chemical reaction between lactate and oxygen molecules. This then generates small amounts of electrical power. Impressive! 

What is uniquely different about this sweat powered device over others, is that it doesn’t require the user to make any special effort to make it work. You can simply sit still and the device will be capable of generating power. And because it’s attached to your fingertip it’s extremely portable! The team at the University of California wanted this to be extremely wearable in daily life.

“We envision that this can be used in any daily activity involving touch, things that a person would normally do anyway while at work, at home, while watching TV or eating. The goal is that this wearable will naturally work for you and you don’t even have to think about it.”

Joseph Wang, senior author of the paper and a professor of nanoengineering at the UCSD Jacobs School of Engineering

The team have found that the biofuels found in the wearable device are capable of harvesting ∼400 mJ/cm2 of energy during sleep. What’s that in layman’s terms? Well that would be enough energy to power a digital watch (not a smart watch). The device also incorporates piezoelectric generators- these are the touch sensitive components, which allow the user to create additional energy by lightly pressing their fingers. 

How would it be used in Virtual Reality (VR)?

One of the exciting things about this fingertip powered wearable technology is the amount of applications it could be used for. But we think it would be a great addition to VR. The V in VR might stand for virtual, but it delivers experiences that are intrinsically physical, immersive and subsequently generates physiological responses in the wearer, depending of course on what they are doing. Common sense tells us we might sweat less participating in a VR meditation then we would playing an adrenaline fuelled game! Think about how much energy  a sweat powered device could generate during a physically exhausting game. As it’s also possible to power up your device using light finger presses as well as sweat, we can see how brilliantly this would work in a VR experience- you could power up your experience whilst being in it, without really ever having to think about it or make any extra effort, especially if you were using motion controllers or VR gloves. 

A reality check to these VR and technology advances

So before we get carried away…! We should make it clear that this technology is in its infancy. We love it because we can see how it would add value to VR experiences, but it’s early days. Because of this, there’s a limit – at the moment- to how much energy can be generated and stored. Currently the amount of energy being generated is enough to power up a wristwatch. The team at  the University of California think it will take some time to get to the point where the wearable device can power up a smartphone or a VR headset. 

But it’s exciting! And it got us wondering about ideas such as a sweat powered glove- collecting more sweat from a larger surface area that could support multi- fingertip devices. Or maybe a sweat powered headset? Who knows where this could go? For now, we’ll watch and wait. If this has caught your attention, you can find the full paper, ‘A passive perspiration biofuel cell: high energy return on investment’ here on Joule.


More about us: Here at Circus we are expert creators of virtual brand experiences, taking real life scenarios and making them virtual. We have worked on just about every project you can think of from virtual tours to virtual training, virtual recruitment and virtual sales tools.

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