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Jan. 5, 2014: i3 It Is Innovation

Getting Wearables Right

Are you ready for the next revolution in mobile computing?

The concept of wearable technology isn't new—ask anyone with a hearing aid or digital watch. However, the conversation around new ultra-portable connected devices has heated up with several widely-recognized consumer brands either announcing their first wave of devices or declaring they are actively working on bringing them to market soon.

Because smartphones are essentially becoming a commodity, such announcements have acted both as validation and catalyst for the wearables industry that received little to no attention even just a few years ago. Now everyone is asking what consumers think about this new avalanche of smart watches and wrist bands, intelligent glasses, e-health patches and other similar devices that have captured everyone's imagination.

Cost savings for a patient in a U.S. hospitalTo establish the relevance of wearable tech against wider consumer trends in mobile such as verticalization, convergence or integration, it is important to understand that current fitness trackers and smart watches represent just the first generation of 'intelligent' wearable devices.

The future of wearables is set to evolve around interconnected systems of devices that share commonalties behind the scenes in terms of connectivity, awareness and power consumption. Each of these devices must meet specific performance and functionality requirements, depending on where they lie on the wearables continuum.

They are designed to monitor, analyze and make sense of our physical surroundings and make our lives better. In this context, wearables exist on a continuum, from tiny sensor-based devices that collect data to fully functional systems with complex operating systems that entertain, communicate and inform.

Let's take an overview of the wearables continuum and functional requirements, and how companies can design their platforms with optimal combinations of low-power, feature-rich technologies that offer the best possible user experience for their specific applications.

Wearable Input Versus Wearable Output

Wearables today can be classified into two high-level segments according to the way they interact with the world: input and output devices.

Input wearables are essentially smart, connected sensors that require extremely low amounts of power to operate. Their role is to collect raw data from the sensors, then filter that data and send it to a central hub, be it a mobile device (smartphone or tablet) or a residential gateway in a connected home. On the hub, this data is translated into usable information. Additional functionality can then enable automatic actions or alerts based on that information.

One example is a heart rate monitor sending packets of smart data to your smartphone. If sudden drops or increases in your heart rate are observed, then a health professional will get a notification and check on your well-being.

From a purely medical perspective, the key benefit is early detection of deteriorating symptoms in a significant number of patients. This allows earlier intervention and, for those affected, greatly improved patient outcomes. This has a direct impact on health care costs, as early interventions lead to shorter hospital stays and the avoidance of more expensive acute treatments. A recent study from the Toumaz Group looking at the benefits of using wearable e-health patches in a U.S. hospital concluded that the average weekly cost savings for a patient was between $5,500 and $9,000.

On the other side of the spectrum, output wearables are devices that provide quick and easy access to immediate information at a glance. This information usually can fit on a small screen and is available to the user quickly in real-time.

Output wearables are aimed at accelerating daily tasks, and offer a more intuitive way of quickly and easily interacting with technology.

For example, include a reminder of an upcoming calendar event, a notification of a missed call or a new message, or various status updates from applications running on your smartphone or on other wearables (like sensors in your shoe).

Higher-end output devices like Google Glass and augmented reality glasses can capture photographs, record videos or even browse the Internet.

Industry Fragmentation

The main problem with these first generation devices is that no real standards exist and this has caused fragmentation in the industry. These devices represent the tip of the iceberg in a sea of devices connected inside an IoT (Internet of Things) mesh. Most manufacturers have so far attempted to solve interoperability with proprietary solutions. This has resulted in devices that work well on their own, but struggle to co-exist in a highly integrated environment. Smart watches that only work with certain smartphones or smart sensors which understand limited communication protocols make life difficult for consumers who want everything to simply work well together.

There are some commonalities though: Bluetooth Smart LE, the reduced power consumption and lower cost variant of its Bluetooth sibling, is set to become the de facto standard for applications in the healthcare, fitness, security and home entertainment industries. Bluetooth LE enables devices to operate for months or years on a single button cell, something that other wireless standards (802.11, ZigBee or 4G) cannot currently offer.

The next step in overcoming fragmentation is at the application level. With Juniper Research reporting that retail revenue generated by smart wearable devices is anticipated to reach $19 billion by 2018, app developers have significant opportunities across health, fitness, sports and communication segments. Without a common API (Application Programming Interface), creating applications that are aware of the multiple connected devices around them becomes a rather painful process.

Finally, telecom operators need to prepare for the massive influx of information that is sure to appear once these wearable devices hit mass market volume. The first effect of facilitating access to content is a natural desire for more. A lot of emphasis will be put on cloud computing; much of the collected data will be routed through your cellular connection and stored away. Fortunately, the transition to 4G (LTE) networks promises to bring higher speeds and enhanced coverage, so theoretically this shouldn't be a problem.

The Hardware and Software to Succeed

Among the first generation of wearables, several devices have retrofitted application processors designed for smartphones into new product designs like glasses and smart watches. Some recent products include Google Glass or smart watches from GEAK, Samsung, Sony and Pebble.

This however, is a temporary solution—the new applications have different requirements determined by specific use patterns that do not necessarily fit the generic mobile phone use case scenarios. The same way you interact differently with a smartphone or tablet versus a TV, users interact differently with a smart watch than with other devices. Processors and applications must be designed specifically for this use case to be compelling for a user.

Most wearable devices will need a new class of chipsets, designed from the ground up for extremely low power requirements, but ready to offer comparable functionality to their beefier mobile brethren. As wearable devices will vary in capabilities, there will be a split between input nodes (fitness and health bands), mainstream output wearables (smart watches) and high end output wearable (smart glasses) that will influence the specifications and feature requirements of these devices.

For input devices, it is vital to have two hardware elements efficiently working together: extremely low-power general processing (CPU) and connectivity (e.g. Wi-Fi/Bluetooth). These technologies need to be backed up by a scalable and flexible software ecosystem that includes a cloud infrastructure ready to store, process and interpret the flow of data coming from these smart sensors.

Performance and Power Efficiency

This is where the need for a new class of ultra low-power wearable processor silicon products is even more apparent. In this class of devices, there are even more complications with the addition of graphics processing, vision technology and full operating systems.

At the same time, companies should approach this process in a vertical manner and offer not just the required silicon, but build an ecosystem of OEM partners, industry consortiums, software vendors, and application developers that are needed for market success.

Wearable electronics and devices for the Internet of Things represent the new frontier for innovation. For the wearables market to succeed, the hardware, operating systems and application development frameworks must all be brought together as a tightly-integrated turnkey package. By cleverly combining low-power, feature rich technologies encompassing CPU, graphics, video, vision, connectivity and communications with smart cloud portals, companies will be uniquely positioned to address the wearable market.

Return to: 2014 Feature Stories