Universal design describes the design of products, buildings or environments in a way that they are accessible to everyone, regardless of age, gender, disabilities, the location or other factors. Energy harvesting could contribute to universal and barrier-free products by eliminating the dependency on the energy grid.

Originating from barrier-free concepts in the 1960s, universal design is now a widely acknowledged aspect of consumer, medical or safety related products, as well as buildings and general environments. The fundamental idea of universal design is that every individual can interact with a product or environment, regardless of individual differences, handicaps or environmental circumstances. To achieve this, universal design applies the following principles (according to the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University): 1. No discrimination between different users or user groups, 2. Flexibility in use and application, 3. Simple and intuitive operation, 4. Clear and perceptible information, 5. Tolerance for error, 6. Low physical effort required by user, 7. Sufficient space for approach and use.

Examples of universal design are smooth, ground level entrances without stairs, buttons and other controls that can be distinguished by haptic feedback or safety features such as non-slip surfaces. We have also seen significant progress in the accessibility of electronics, hardware and software. A topic that is less prominent in the discussion of universal design is energy availability. However, the need of most electronic devices to be frequently or permanently connected to the energy grid contradicts fundamental universal design principles as it limits the availability to certain user groups and reduces the possible use cases and application sites.

Energy harvesting is for everyone, everywhere

Energy harvesting could enable universal design principles in technology that consume electric energy. Energy autonomous products do not discriminate between users and increase the flexibility in use and application. Without the need to recharge, products could be used anywhere on the planet, even in remote areas that are not permanently connected to the power grid. But even in areas with high energy availability, energy harvesting could simplify our interaction with wearable electronic devices by an intuitive approach: Whenever a device is worn by the user, enough energy is harvested to power the application. If the device is not in use, it falls back to a hibernation state that preserves data. The user never needs to worry about charging cycles (‘fit-and-forget’). While this might be a convenience for many users, it can be of crucial importance in medical and personal healthcare applications.

Summary

Universal design allows every individual to interact with technology and environment in a simple and intuitive way. The dependency of most electronic devices on the energy grid contradicts this goal. Energy harvesting could enable universal design for electronics and wearables by making recharging expandable.