Room-sized technology shrunk to desktop form factors, then to laptop and palmtop sizes, and now to such a level that you can wear it on your wrist, in your chain or as cool sunglasses. In fact, devices can even be weaved into your clothes or stitched on labels. Wearable devices help in a variety of ways—to monitor the wearer’s health, evaluate his exercise, diet or even sleep pattern, track location, deliver new gaming or travel experiences through augmented reality, or run simple applications.
“Most of the wearable technology spoken about today is either in the military domain or in the healthcare and related areas like fitness and sports. The features are mostly limited to basic connectivity using Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. Some of the other more advanced features like location information and augmented reality are in different stages of adoption. Augmented reality applications still need to see mainstream use cases. Location has a challenge of being battery-intensive, which affects adoption of these devices. However, these challenges are also likely to be overcome in a year or two and we will see wearable devices picking up in other areas as well,” says Shivesh Vishwanathan, senior consultant (Mobility), Persistent Systems—a company that provides mobility solutions for wearable devices.
Vishwanathan cites a recent study, which estimates that 30 million mHealth wearable wireless devices were shipped in 2012—an increase of 37 per cent over shipments in 2011. Many of these devices are in the sports category from companies like Nike, Garmin and Adidas. Wearable device market is slated to rapidly increase and become a $1-1.5 billion industry by 2014.
While some of these wearable tech accessories are street-smart and affordable, quite a few are associated with famous designers or fashion houses and cost many thousand dollars. The I’m Watch, for instance, is a smartphone companion that can handle calls, messages, emails, music and other applications, with an in-built ARM processor, customised Android operating system, a 4GB flash drive, 128MB RAM, battery, speakers, display and other features! It comes in various models priced from $389 to $19,990—and the designs vary from simple coloured bands to gold and titanium jewelled versions with studded diamonds et al!
What makes wearable tech different—and difficult?
Wearable technology is special—not just because of the trendy feel but also because of the efforts that are required to create it. When designing and developing a wearable product, one has to remember that it has to be worn by a human comfortably. It should neither be too bulky nor too hot. Similarly, it should be safe. These basic requirements greatly influence the design goals of wearables.
Wearable technology requires very low-energy, battery-powered components to minimise heat dissipation and provide extended battery life, as it can be frustrating to change batteries or charge them frequently. Heat dissipation can lead to not just poor device performance but also discomfort for the user.
Size is another factor to be considered as the device is to be worn. For instance, the chip required to enable augmented reality in sunglasses will be a lot smaller than the chip in a mobile phone. Miniaturisation is becoming increasingly feasible, thanks to micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS) and the development of cost-efficient batch fabrication techniques for their manufacture. MEMS is making it possible to integrate components such as microprocessors, sensors and radio communication circuits into a single integrated circuit (IC) or system-on-chip (SoC) implementation.
“Ensuring that the chips provide optimal performance whilst being compact and power-efficient is the key challenge that designers face. It is not just the usual electronic design challenges that one needs to work with. We want ‘always-on’ communications, apps and devices but there is still a lot of work to be done in areas such as interoperability and sustainability,” says Guru Ganesan, managing director-India operations, ARM.
Low-power, low-footprint processors
Today, ARM’s Cortex series is popular for wearable applications. Nike Fuelband uses a Cortex-M3, the Fitbit family products are all ARM Cortex-M3 based, and advanced watch platforms like MyBasis and I’m Watch are mostly ARM based.
“We have a variety of products that cater to wearable products: Cortex-A application processor series, Cortex-R real-time processor series and Cortex-M processor series that caters to embedded applications. For most applications, Cortex-M series processors will be the most suitable, due to their very low power consumption and small footprint. Cortex-M0+ processor, for example, consumes as little as three microwatts per megahertz while occupying an area of just 0.01 mm2. Despite their very small size and low power consumption, these processors incorporate sufficient intelligence to handle most wearable applications easily. Depending on the exact application, a Cortex-R series processor may also be incorporated to handle data communication tasks. Besides these, our Mali GPUs cater to the augmented reality space,” says Ganesan.
Intel too is working on creating processors for wearables. These will probably be half the size of the Atom processors used commonly in mobile devices, and consume power in the range of a few microwatts.
Syncing with the wearer
Wearable devices use a variety of sensors ranging from gyroscopes and accelerometers to location sensors. Sensors in a health monitor might constantly measure vital body signs like pulse and temperature, while those in a fitness tool might monitor how many jumps you have done, how long you have run or how fast you are moving. Those in an augmented reality application might keep a close watch on how you move, bend or turn your head, to ensure that the display is in sync with the environment.
Sensors used in wearable technology can be broadly classified into body sensors and ambient sensors. MEMS technology has led to the development of miniature sensors that can be worn without much disturbance. Wearable sensors are sometimes combined with ambient sensors, which are embedded in the environment. A combination of body and ambient sensors could, for example, be used to unobtrusively monitor senior citizens in their home environment, collecting information on their activities, sleep, restroom visits, etc. The network, in turn, can convey alerts to remote caregivers if there is a variation in the usual behaviour pattern.
In early days, sensors were integrated using wires that ran through the garment. Today’s wearables, however, use wireless communications technologies like radio frequency (RF), near-field communications (NFC), Bluetooth and ZigBee. These are suitable for wearables because of their low cost, small-size transceivers and low power consumption. The recently developed IEEE 802.15.4a standard based on ultra-wide-band (UWB) impulse radio opens the door for high-data-rate yet low-power, low-cost sensor network applications with the possibility of highly accurate location estimation.
For most monitoring applications, the sensor network would, in turn, have to transmit data to a remote site using an information gateway such as a mobile phone or laptop.
Syncing with mobile devices
In a way, the growth of wearable technology products can be attributed to the popularity of smartphones and tablets. While wearable products are capable of doing a certain amount of standalone processing, most of the current generation products work together with a mobile device—which gives them access to the whole Cloud! They simply partner with a connected mobile device via Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or other wireless communications technology, and transfer a large part of the processing and value-add work to the mobile. In fact, this is what enables the creation of light and safe wearable technology products that can still perform meaningful tasks.
Wireless technologies like 3G/4G, GPS and Bluetooth are popular in wearable devices like watches and augmented-reality glasses. While these are relatively mature technologies, the actual challenge in using these in wearable devices is three-fold: Enabling these on the device using very little power; coping with the general telecom issues that plague all the mobile devices; and selecting the right platform and software in order to handle such data transactions securely.
“The features of today’s wearable products are limited to basic connectivity like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Battery life is one of the most important considerations for wearable devices—much like it is for mobile devices. Even technologies and hardware that support communication protocols like Bluetooth and 3G radio are battery-intensive,” says Vishwanathan.
Vishwanathan adds “Communication of information collected from the wearable devices to another device or to servers is also tricky. Connectivity issues like keep-alive connections, connection drops, and switching between cell towers and others systems are some of the most challenging issues to manage even in traditional mobile applications, and these challenges carry forward to wearable devices as well.”
Another important consideration is to fit the relevant information into the tiny screens of wearable devices. Traditional, non-software devices are able to do it elegantly, but software as a paradigm is data-intensive, and simplifying that information and interface to fit into smaller screens is something that software vendors have to ensure.
Recently, Persistent Systems released a white-paper on Consumerware—a form of consumerisation of software—that talks about ten characteristics of Consumerware which traditional software might lack. At a high level, Consumerware applications are endpoint agnostic, context-driven as opposed to event-driven, content-centric rather than program-centric, transformational instead of transactional, data-driven, collaborative, and will bridge the final frontier in human-machine interaction. So mobile devices including wearable ones are actually leading to a disruptive change in the software world.
Ganesan adds, “In fact, with the help of communication technologies, one can use their wearable devices to connect to other devices and hence enable the Internet of Things.”
Testing to ensure compliance
“Electronic devices radiate RF power, which could be dangerous for the human body. Imagine a piece of chicken in a microwave oven. It gets cooked. The same is bound to happen when excess RF power is kept close to a human body. There are compliance standards like CE to regulate this, and compliance testing for electromagnetic interference/compatibility (EMI/EMC) is one of the major considerations while developing wearable technology,” says Satish Mohanram, technical marketing manager, National Instruments-India.
Temperature profile is another key consideration. The heating effect of the system has to be studied in order to understand the hotspots and one has to make sure that heat is properly dissipated. Then there are shock and vibration tests that test the ruggedness of the device—which is very important as the wearer might unknowingly drop or hit the object against tough surfaces.
How reliable are these devices?
Endpoint security and privacy are very important. Many of the wearable devices are regulated as part of industries like healthcare.
“In healthcare, for example, the devices have to adhere to HIPAA regulations when storing and communicating patient’s information. These regulations apply to mobile devices. Companies building solutions around wearable devices can look at how traditional mobile applications and solutions overcome them, and apply them into their setting,” says Vishwanathan.
Data encryption and establishing secure communication channels will ensure that sensitive data in storage as well as transit is adequately secure. Privacy is a bit more tricky and involves how and where the data is stored and who (including which other applications) has access to it once it reaches a server, what data from a wearable device is being ‘recorded’ or used, and whether the user has given explicit consent to that usage.
“In general, we are witnessing consumerisation of software at multiple levels on mobile devices and wearable devices. So privacy concerns will be discussed a lot in future, similar to what we have seen on consumer Web applications like Facebook and some Google products,” adds Vishwanathan.
What’s being worn now?
Let us now look at some interesting examples of wearable devices that are in the making or available in the market today.
Lifestyle monitors. Physical activity monitors like Fitbit, Larklife and Nike’s Fuelband are very popular today. All are wristbands with built-in triaxial accelerometers. While Fuelband monitors only physical activity, Fitbit and Larklife also track diet and sleep. Such devices are powered by Lithium-polymer batteries, and connect to other devices using means like Bluetooth and USB 2.0.
The devices are coupled with an application running on a mobile phone, tablet or laptop, which analyses the information and initiates further activities based on it. Fuelband, for example, provides feedback on your exercise using the colour-changing LED indicators that gradually change colour from red to green. You can use the application to set goals or play games involving your physical movements.
Larklife uses intelligent algorithms to monitor your lifestyle and provides personalised suggestions for improvement. For example, if you have not slept enough overnight, it suggests that you have a protein-packed breakfast to compensate the energy levels.
While there are specialised health-related wearables available, off-the-shelf lifestyle monitors can be used to stay fit. In a detailed and inspiring blog post, Dan Hon writes about how he used a couple of common technologies including Nike’s Fuelband to conquer Type 2 Diabetes.
Smart watches. Smart watches are being positioned as perfect companions for your smartphones. Pebble, MuteWatch 2.0, Fossil MetaWatch, I’m Watch and inPulse BlackBerry Watch are some interesting examples.
Pebble works with a smartphone to let users connect to the Internet and download customised watch-faces or applications that match their needs. Cyclists or runners can use Pebble as a bike computer, accessing GPS on the smartphone to display speed, distance and pace data. Golfers can use it as a rangefinder. Or, you can simply use it to control the music running on your phone.
Pebble’s manufacturers are working with software companies to develop more and more applications for it. Plus, you can customise the watch.
“Want your watch to tell you when your next bus is leaving? Maybe you’re jonesing to see your compile status or recent github commits. Think push notifications directly to your watch using the data connection on your phone. Want to check-in on your watch or create an app that can monitor your sleep? Pebble can send data from the accelerometer and buttons back up to the Internet. It can receive simple alerts and notifications from ‘if this then that’ (ifttt.com) or our Web-facing RESTful endpoint. More adventurous developers can use the Pebble SDK, with its Arduino-like abstractions and simple ‘C’ structure, to gain full control of the watch. Multiple apps can run on Pebble, alongside watch-faces and regular notifications”—write the founders on their website.
Smart glasses. Augmented-reality glasses like Project Glass from Google and Vuzix’ M100 Smart Glasses are the next most promising category of wearables. Of the lot, Vuzix seems to have had a head-start. The light headset has a small, widescreen, colour monitor in front of the user’s right eye. The device has basic control buttons, and also Bluetooth connectivity to sync with smartphones.
The Smart Glasses is currently capable of streaming and recording video, but its scope goes beyond that. There will soon be applications that combine the location-awareness and video capabilities of the device. For example, if you are in a new city, and you want to know how to go somewhere, the device would be able to show the route merged with your real-time view and movements.
While demonstrating the product at CES 2013, one of the company’s chief executives gave another interesting example—if you are in France, and you are looking at the menu in a restaurant, the glasses could translate the text into a language you understand.
Hearing tools. Earphones are perhaps one of the most ubiquitous examples of wearable technology. There are people who wear it for almost 12-14 hours a day, to listen to music and take calls. It is understandable then that earphones have become a point of innovation now. Comfort, safety, clarity, style—everything comes together in modern earphones. Earphones pack state-of-the-art speaker technology—with Philips, Bose and other renowned players in the game. Some earphones are styled by the world’s most famous designers, and cost a tidy sum! Interestingly, the CES 2013 innovation awards list featured over 15 headphones, including those from Philips, Audio-Technica, Nokia, Logitech and iLuv.
Tracking tools. Wearable tracking tools are becoming popular in several countries, for keeping an eye on senior citizens, children and pets. One recent example is StickNFind—little circular stickers that you can stick on a pet or your kid’s bag or shoe. It helps monitor the object’s movement or set up a digital leash—you can set up a range within which the object can freely move, and if the child or pet wanders beyond that, you will get a signal on your mobile. These stickers contain a Bluetooth chip, temperature sensor and battery, and are designed to be used with a smartphone app, which shows a radar image covering a 61-metre radius.
Special needs. There are several wearable technologies for those with special needs. One of the oldest examples is the hearing aid, which has become quite advanced today in capabilities and form—thanks to MEMS technologies and advanced audio systems. Consider, for example, the LINX AUDIO Premium digital in-canal hearing aid, which is said to be the first in-canal hearing aid to combine advanced audio technologies with environment management tools for custom solutions to enhance comprehension in difficult listening environments and to address specific tonal sensitivities.
In EFY’s January issue, we had also discussed a new technology being developed by Cogni-Wave—a hearing-aid that uses rotating microphones designed to filter environmental sounds, so that the person using the hearing-aid hears exactly like someone with functional hearing, i.e., one voice at a time.
Four students from Ukraine have developed a simple and inexpensive solution called Enable Talk comprising special gloves and a mobile application, which can detect signs made by the user wearing the gloves, and convert it to text or speech on the phone. The glove is made up of eleven flex sensors and eight touch sensors, a 3D digital linear acceleration sensor, magnetic sensor, accelerometer and gyroscope in addition to an Atmel XMEGA A3 microcontroller, Bluetooth, built-in solar charger and other components.
On a more common plane, there are several wearable blood glucose meters from companies like Abbott and Medtronic, fitness and heart rate monitors from companies like Garmin, Adidas, Polar and Suunto, and customised vital-signs monitors, which are used either for personal monitoring or by doctors to monitor their wards. There are patches, head-gear, watches and a large range of health gear. Plus, the lifestyle monitors discussed earlier can also be used for various health-related purposes.
Wearable commerce. Last year also saw a couple of examples of how wearable technology could be used for commerce. Ticketholders to the Barclaycard Mercury Music Prize were given NFC wristbands known as ‘Payband.’ The aesthetically designed wristband enabled the wearer to gain entry to shows and buy stuff without carrying any cash or cards. The Payband is basically an RFID (or NFC) microchip embedded in a silicone wristband, pre-loaded with payment-equivalent tokens. Similarly, Disney also recently introduced the MagicBand wristband that allows Disney World visitors to gain entry to rides or their hotel rooms, without any cash, cards or keys.
Motion capture. Garments and shoes with sensors and cameras can be used to capture the wearer’s movements very closely. These are often used by sportspeople, gymnasts and dancers to critically review their work.
At CES this year, Xsens Technologies demonstrated a motion capture kit comprising a range of accelerometers, gyroscopes and magnetometer sensors plus powerful software. When a person wearing the sensors dances, a screen shows a vivid computer-animated figure that matches the moves. The idea is to offer users a way to digitise their actions and play them back as 3D graphics to help perfect their skills.
Culture first, tech next
It is evident from this discussion that there is no end to the fantastic options that wearable technology throws up. However, for such technologies to survive and thrive, technology makers have to understand that wearable technology is not merely a new technology or old technologies in a new package. It is a new plane of innovation, a new thought process, which puts man before machine.
As Sarah Rotman Epps, a senior analyst at Forrester, observes in her recent report Smart Body, Smart World: “Product strategists must embrace a human-centric approach to design—the person is the focus of innovation, not the device.”
The wearable device should blend with your culture and lifestyle. For a wearable device to become successful, you should be able to wear it and use it without looking awkward. It should also serve a powerful purpose—because fashion is short-lived but functionality lasts.
The author is a technically-qualified freelance writer, editor and hands-on mom based in Chennai