In 2014, wearable electronics technology saw an enormous increase in popularity with Internet searches for related terms increasing ten-fold and over $1 billion invested towards development in this domain. While the technology is still in its infancy, experts predict that wearable devices will rise at a 154 percent annual compound rate through 2017 with over 110 million devices being sold. Analysts at Morgan Stanley believe it will become a $1.6 trillion business in the near-future. Crowdfunding has become the source of choice in bringing creative ideas to the wearable market, and 2014 saw crowdfunding companies like Kickstarter and Indiegogo raise money with high success and delivery rates.
There are several technologies that revolutionize wearable electronics; few of them are Sensors, Form factor, Display and software. At present motion sensors like accelerometers, gyroscopes, magnetometers, pressure sensors are the dominant type of sensors used in wearables. UI-related MEMS sensors & microphones for voice control will be integrated to wearable electronics soon. Form factor also plays a major role in wearable technology; not just with respect to the SoC but also for the entire system. Packages like quad flat no-lead (QFN), micro-chip-scale packaging (uCSP) and wafer scale chip packaging (CSP) are popular solutions for power management, microcontrollers and wireless functions due to their small form factors which can be used on small PCBs or integrated with the use of flex-based circuits. Android Wear OS brought Google into the software world of wearables when it was launched on March 18, 2014. There is also Tizen, the open-source by Samsung and Intel, MediaTek’s LinkIt and the Wearable OS expected from LG.
The focus in the current wearable electronics market is clearly on wrist-mounted devices like smartwatches, fitness bands or a combination of the two. But, the future of wearable electronics is not limited to our wrists alone. There are plenty of places like Medical and Banking that manufacturers are keen to venture into with their desirable tech pieces. Google, Apple and Microsoft have launched their own health & Wellness platforms to extract data from people who are having a health conditions about what they have done or to measure essential data. Doctors have increasingly shown interest in using these wearable electronics to give regular information to the patients about health; by tracking and providing corrective inputs on the fly. A few Canadian banks are exploring the option of using a wrist band made by a startup “Bionym” that will measure ECG pattern to authenticate payments.
Cambridge Consultants are working on a UV hair slide that would tell how much UV exposure you have had on a summer day! A pair of headphones could monitor your heart’s electrical activity and feed the data to your smart phone. Several developers are working on a tattoo that will be implanted on the skin of the hand and would interact with everything that a person touches like locking/unlocking doors, protecting credit card information and so on. These new gadgets are just around the corner. Some of the other product trends that are emerging in the wearable world are:
Sensors and Glasses – There are already a host of photo-snapping life-loggers available in the market such as the OMG Life Autographer and the Narrative Clip. They will take pictures throughout your day and keep a log of your movements to build sharable photographic memory of the day. Then there are wearable electronics devices like the Sony Core which is a waterproof sensor and can pair with a camera to keep track of special moments or a fitness band to give your workout a new dimension.
Tech-Woven Clothes – Implanted technology will likely be the preserve of medical applications, at least in the new future. But not so for tech-woven clothes. Fashion giant Ralph Lauren recently took the initiative by announcing The Polo Tech Shirt. This shirt is designed to be used when exercising; embedded with various sensors that would collect the user’s biometric data, heart rate, how much calories burned, distance traveled and intensity of movement. Dolce & Gabbana in collaboration with Motorola are also working on a tech-woven clothing indicating that this may definitely emerge as a huge trend.
Automobile – BMW showcased their research vehicle i3 at CES 2015 that could lead to collision free driving in the near future. Smartwatch can be used by the driver to park the vehicle through the remote-control valet parking system developed by BMW. According to the company, a driver can activate the “Remote Valet Parking assistant” through an app, which would guide the vehicle to a parking spot all by itself. This car works with the help of laser sensors that scan the surrounding environment so it can move without running into anything.
Home Automation – Soon, switching on the lights in your house will involve a simple wrist-and-hand gesture as you walk through the door and another gesture would turn on the HDTV and Xbox while dimming the den lights. When you are set to go out, another hand gesture would switch off all your home’s lights and lock all the doors. Playtabase wristband “Reemo” would make all of this possible.
Aviation – Japan Airlines ensures that its gate agents are equipped with smartwatches at the Tokyo Haneda Airport’s Terminal 1, enabling them to receive location-specific tasks from the control desk which can track their whereabouts using iBeacons.
While a lot of new trends and opportunities are opening up in the wearable electronics technology space, there is one simple fact that will be key for this technology to move from a few experimental low volume products to mass market. This make-it-or-break-it element is that consumers want wearable devices to be such a seamless experience that they can forget they are even wearing it. They look for devices that are unobtrusive and blend into the fabric of the physical appearance. Achieving this seamlessness is still a way away. A couple of technical challenges that stand in the way of many of these futuristic ideas are the limiting battery life and circuit shrinkage. But both of these aspects will inevitably improve over time and allow manufacturers to integrate them into their wearable devices. Wearable technology may not take off as quickly as some are expecting. But, if the above points are addressed, wearable electronics will be on the rise, which means they could be on their way to the enterprise.
*Published in EE Times India