Wearable electronics, like watches and fitness trackers, represent the next logical step in computing. They've sparked an interest in the development of flexible electronics, which could expand the category to include products like clothing and backpacks.
Flexible electronics, however, run into a problem: Our processing hardware is anything but flexible. Most efforts aimed at dealing with that limitation have involved splitting up processors into a collection of smaller units, linking them with flexible wiring, and then embedding all the components in a flexible polymer. To an extent, the process is a throwback to the early days of computing, when a floating point unit might reside on a separate chip.
But a group within the semiconductor company Arm has now managed to implement one of the company's smaller embedded designs using flexible silicon. The design works and executes all the instructions you'd expect from it, but it also illustrates the compromises we have to make for truly flexible electronics.
The basic idea behind flexible electronics is remarkably simple: start with a flexible substrate (like a plastic or paper) and use it as a substrate for fabricating a thin layer of a flexible semiconductor. A variety of semiconductors fit the bill, ranging from atomically thin materials to semiconducting polymers. But most of the options aren't mature technologies with regard to their use in the fabrication of logic gates, so working with them involves two layers of experimentation—both with the materials themselves and with their flexibility.