Example Engineering Essay

Discuss the different types of Pervasive electronics

Date authored: 23 rd August, 2014.

The invention of the transistor in mid twentieth century gave birth to modern day electronics. Rapid advancements in semiconductor and fabrication technologies allowed the exponential growth of electronic components especially in the last two decades. Electronics with new functionalities have started to emerge in all aspects of human life. Silicon and other material (organic and inorganic) technologies have enabled electronics to be realised on extremely smaller scales. Apart from smaller scales, these technologies also allow dense packing, durability, simpler integration, flexibility and low weight for electronics. These characteristics have rapidly pushed the trend of pervasive and ubiquitous electronics (Maliniak, 2002).

Pervasive Electronics is very much related to consumer electronics. The invention of and later improvement in silicon transistor technology reduced the size and cost of electronic devices such as televisions, video recorders, computers, mobile phones, etc. In the last fifty years, television sets and video recorders have become house-hold devices and more recently computers and mobile phones. These devices could only be realised with the help of improved and cheaper electronic fabrication processes. This resulted in the lower cost and smaller size of devices, making them affordable for the people. Rapid penetration of these electronics followed after that and this allowed these devices to become pervasive in nature. The major motivations behind all these improvements were necessity, entertainment, information access, health care, business development and better and easier life (Stern, 2012; Grant, 2011). Now the trend is towards introducing new and radical functionalities.

Pervasive electronic systems consist of active and passive electronics devices. Active devices mainly include different sensors. Theses sensors are mostly electronic devices which respond to changes in the ambient environment, user commands, human gestures, etc. These devices are more like input devices. The passive devices are usually actuators. These actuators are electronic devices that respond to the information or command send to them by the controller or user. A complete electronic system consists of both of these. The electronic system ends up being a complex integration of sensors and actuators, designed for particular or diverse functionalities or applications.

The functionalities and applications of modern pervasive electronics include smart and intelligent clothing, flexible displays, smart health monitoring and diagnostic systems, smart phones, wearable computing devices, energy storage and generation, smart bio-compatible devices, etc (Axisa, et al., 2005; Min & Cruz, 2012; Gallozzi, 2012).

One of the earlier pervasive electronic systems was the television set. The transistor allowed better, smaller and cheaper electrical switching systems. This helped the television set to become a household commodity in the 1950s and 1960s. Later, the advancements in display technologies and better circuitry made television sets much cheaper, lighter and compact. This resulted in an exponential growth in the number of television sets and display screens. Present day television sets are mostly LCD (Liquid crystal display) based. The old initial cathode ray tubes are almost history while other available display technologies including Plasma Displays, LED (Light Emitting Diode) displays, OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diode) displays, projection displays and rear projection displays are emerging rapidly as alternative electronic technologies. (Goldberg, n.d.; Fischetti, 2001)

One interesting technology is the flexible OLED. Flexible electronic displays have been developed recently and they can be used as electronic newspapers, portable TV screens, cloaking, etc. Extensive research is underway in this regard and numerous designs and modifications using different materials have been proposed. Organic materials are the more preferred choice of researchers as they allow more flexibility when compared to inorganic materials. Different substrates has been developed modifying existing printing and fabrication technologies. Inkjet printing has been extensively researched for printing electronic circuitry on these substrates (Berggren, et al., 2007). New materials such as Graphene have also been used in developing flexible electronic systems. Graphene is a two dimensional metal which provides ideal flexibility for such applications. Competing materials such as Indium Tin Oxide have emerged but constantly increasing cost along with complex methods for material synthesis have multiplied the demand for Graphene. On the other hand, conventional semiconductor materials do not have the required physical properties as Graphene and therefore, cannot be easily used as a material for flexible electronics. Although, some methods for modifying the physical properties of conventional semiconductor materials are reported in the research literature but still they are unable to match the success of materials like Graphene and Indium Tin Oxide in the domain of flexible electronics (Hamers, 2001; Y. Sun, 2007; Forrest, 2004; Nathan, et al., 2012).

Video recording and playing equipment is another example of a pervasive electronic system. It started with recording on tape. The initial devices were electromechanical devices. Later the tape took the form of a cassette. The recorders became smaller in size and the VCR (video cassette recorder) became the big thing in the 1980s and 1990s. The technology was later replaced by the DVD and DVR recorders. The tape was replaced by a digital disc and the mechanical parts in the systems were reduced to a few components. Blue Ray and Laser based recording technology emerged after the DVD technologies. These devices were compact and were easily able to interface with the existing display technologies which resulted in a massive impact on the popularity of these devices. They were cheap, compact and easily attached with the television sets or projectors, which led to the creation of personalised entertainment systems. The current trend is towards the 3D holographic and optical storage of videos (Gallozzi, 2012).

The discussion of pervasive electronics is incomplete without reference to personal computers. Computer started as a bulky machine almost equal in size to a small home, consuming enough power to run a small town and had very slow computation speeds. In the two to three decades, this machine has been transformed to the size of a wrist watch and even smaller. The contributions of people like Steve Jobs and companies like IBM, Apple, Intel, Samsung, HP, etc. cannot be ignored in making computers - a personal and pervasive electronic device. The prices have then decreased from millions of dollars to a few hundred dollars. It was estimated in year 2001 that more than 125 million personal computers were sold compared to approximately 48,000 computers in 1977 and that there will be more than 2.5 billion personal computer units by the end of 2014 (Kanellos, 2002; Lunden, 2014).

Audio technology has also improved with the advancement in electronics. Instead of huge and bulky audio systems like gramophones and phonographs, electrical and magnetic recording and sound playing systems emerged. These systems were much smaller, cheaper, compact and less energy consuming. In the last few decades the size of audio playing and recording systems has reduced drastically. The initial tape recorder and player systems, although not the size of gramophones or phonographs, were still lacking portability. First came portable electronic cassette players (e.g. Walkman by Sony) and today people are using electronic Pods and MP3 players (e.g. iPod by Apple) that are not bigger than a wrist watch (Beal, 2010; Boehret, 2012). Apart from the size, they have the ability to store thousands of songs and a battery life of almost a week. These Pods have been very popular for almost a decade now but the recent surveys and reports have shown a decline in the sales of these devices because of the emergence of smart phones, Pads and tablets (Hollister, 2014).

The success of wireless cellular phones, smart computing tablets and the emergence of internet technology is another significant chapter in the story of pervasive electronics.

Early telephones were wired and bulky electromechanical devices. Wires caused major portability issues for the phones. The first wireless mobile phone appeared in 1973 developed by Motorola and the flood gates for wireless handset technologies were opened after that. The improvement in radio frequency transmission technologies (GSM, CDMA, etc) and emergence of cellular networks led to the development of better and improved wireless handsets. This again happened because of the advancement in electronic technologies. These sets were initially simple wireless electronic devices which can be easily carried around and had calling and call receiving facilities but in the last decade only, the size reduced and the functionalities provided by the handsets increased drastically. The decrease in cost along with massive manufacturing allowed the people to have multiple handsets with them having different features. Companies like Samsung, Apple, Nokia, LG, and Motorola have a major contribution in the development and commercialisation of these handsets. Reports suggest that Samsung and Apple respectively shared about 31% and 15.6% of the world's mobile phone sales in 2013 only (Egham, 2014).

The handsets and mobile phones of 1970s and 1980s have improved drastically with introduction of many different features and applications that now they are termed as "smart phones". Apart from the voice calling facilities of their predecessors, these "smart phones" provide numerous other facilities to their users. These facilities include multimedia entertainment, embedded computing, internet connectivity, GPS tracking and navigation, messaging, audio/video recording and playback capabilities, etc. These functionalities are all embedded on a single electronic board inside the "smart phones" which only became possible because of improved integrated circuits and micro-fabrication techniques. This makes these devices inherently electronic in nature.

Computing Tablets or Smart Tablets are hand held computing devices. These are equipped with sensors, microphones, accelerometers, cameras, high resolution and touch enabled display screens, processors, memories and batteries in a single module. They have capability of a phone and a computer at the same time. The last decade has seen tremendous growth in the concept of such electronic devices. One of the first such devices was developed by AT&T in 1991. Many such tablets were later developed by different companies but the trend setting device was iPad developed by Apple Computers and released in 2010. In last four years, many companies have jumped into the tablet computer industry. Samsung, Asus, HP, Microsoft, Google and Lenovo are the major manufacturers of tablets. These tablets have introduced a revolutionised reading by providing the readers a new interaction experience. High resolution, capacitive and touch enabled screens enjoyed great success among book and newspaper readers. Amazon's “Kindle Fire” and Barnes & Noble's “NOOK” are great examples such electronic devices, with sales reaching more than 5 million units in 2010. These devices are highly portable, efficient, powerful, compact, multi-purpose and cheap. This is why they are having a huge amount of success among the people around the globe. They are now extensively employed in the third world countries for education and learning purposes. It is estimated that by the end of year 2015 the overall number of tablets sold throughout the world will be more than the number of personal computers which is currently estimated to be around 2.5 billion units as mentioned earlier. (Chen, 2012; Lunden, 2014)

The "smart phones" and “smart tablets” lose the "smart" word without the availability of the internet. The internet technology developed out of US defense research and later commercialised in 1990s. The age of internet exploded in 2000s and we are currently living in that age. Internet provides connectivity to billions of computer across the world where they are connected and can share and access information via "world wide web". Internet also owes its success to the electronic components involved in it. Computers, communication networks, communication infrastructure, data storage centers, etc. all have electronics involved with them. These things cannot exist without electronics. It is primarily because of the constant improvement in electronics that internet is capable of withstanding connectivity of the 6 billion people across the world.

The latest trends and research for the pervasive electronics have been driven by the advancements in flexible electronics. Flexible electronic materials and substrates have renewed the interest in new bio-medical, health care devices and numerous other areas. Electronic devices with shapes conforming biological surfaces have been realised (Nathan, et al., 2012). Electronic systems replicating human senses have been demonstrated by the researchers. Electronic Tongue (taste sensors) and Nose (smell sensor) has been reported in the literature. (Buratti, et al., 2011) Similarly, bionic versions of human eye have been realised by researchers in many different manners exploiting the advancements in electronics. (Min & Cruz, 2012). The flexible electronics has started to revolutionise health care by providing non-invasive monitoring and diagnostics. It has also enabled the researchers and scientists to interact, control and integrate with living organs and organisms (Hamers, 2001).

One of the emerging trends in pervasive electronics is towards developing intelligent clothing, wearable computing and autonomous homes. Availability of many electronic technologies such as telecommunications, micro-fabrication, low power design, new textiles and sensors have made it possible to develop human friendly materials to enhance comfort and security. Researchers are developing clothes and textiles equipped with smart sensors and electronics for non-invasive monitoring of patients. Apart from the monitoring aspect, these clothing are also designed to be environment friendly, to provide health care facilities and illness protection. (Axisa, et al., 2005)

Electronic devices have penetrated in every aspect of modern day human life. Today these electronic devices are used everywhere from our homes, offices, medical centers, schools, government institutions and even for travelling around. Importance of these devices is realised when a device gets damaged. Electronics have now become a part of everyday human life bringing many advantages and disadvantages with it, but, as a whole it is impossible to realise modern world without these electronic devices.


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